Flash Points: SJ O’Hart

FlashPoints3

Welcome to Flash Points. Every Monday we stick one of the previous Friday’s entries under a sparklyscope (which is like a rifle scope except no one gets hurt) and talk about it right in front of its face, dragon style. What makes writing “good”? Specifically, what makes great flash? Let the discussion begin!

Prompt: Cowboy

Word limit:  250 exactly

Today’s chosen flash piece:  Standoff, by SJ O’Hart

‘Amelia!’ he roared. ‘Come on out here, now!’

She’d seen him coming, but not in time. No chance to get Baby out of her crib, bundled up and ready to run. She’d hesitated too long, and now he was outside her house, stalking back and forth like an angry bear. She couldn’t see his gun, but she knew it was there, not far from his hungry hands.

‘Amelia! I’m not gon’ wait much longer!’

Her breaths quickened, and thoughts began to pile up as her panic grew. How’d he even found them? She’d done so much to cover her tracks. Hadn’t she? Laid a trail to suggest she’d gone to Kansas City… Left clues she’d married, even. She must’ve made a mistake, somewhere along the line.

She could smell that old liquor stench. The moist heat of his breath, smothering her. The pressure in her chest almost grew too much.

Then, her burning eyes fell on her father’s old shotgun, lying in the corner.

‘I know you’re in there, woman! You and that brat both!’ He spat, sudden as a slap. ‘I’m comin’ in, Amelia. See if I don’t!’

Daddy’s gun was unloaded, she knew. She couldn’t reach the bullets, on top of the tallboy, without being seen through the window. Baby stirred, moaning in her sleep.

Fast and quick, Amelia slid towards the gun, cold and heavy in her hands. Two short breaths, and she pulled open the door. Stepping out, she levelled the empty weapon at his heart.

What works

This is one of those open-ended pieces like we squabbled over last week. Does a flash story need to tell a complete story, or can the piece still be effective if the plot does not fully resolve? I wanted to explore that question again this week, because I’m rather waffling on the issue myself.

Wonderful example: SJ’s “Standoff” stops in the middle of the action; we are not told whether Amelia’s dramatic display of bravado will be enough to save her life. Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn’t. Maybe the unnamed brute will fall dead of a heart attack. Or maybe his cruelty will triumph and the story will end in unjust tragedy. But since we don’t know, we ourselves have to suffer in frustrated ignorance.

But.

Here’s why I think this piece still works. The plot does not resolve. However, the character arc does. We journey with Amelia through her panicked rehashing of her personal history: her abuse at her attacker’s hands; her frantic flight and the myriad ways she attempted to disappear. Until now she has been defensive, reactive, on the run. As the tension rises, we watch her reach deep within to find Alamo-style heroism: stepping out to face the enemy armed with nothing more than courage. Instead of cowering, she acts, and in that action she displays strength that her enemy’s “hungry hands” could never hope to match. There is a great deal of satisfaction in seeing her character growth with our own eyes. In that respect, she has already won, regardless of what happens next plot-wise.

Finally: it’s a bit off-topic, but I wanted to add how cool it is that Amelia is the only character named. This tactic forces us further into her POV by helping us identify with her (and distance ourselves from him) and by exacerbating our connection to the terror of the situation: she can’t see him, but she can hear him, an experience SJ masterfully mirrors for us, the readers. Scary. And wonderfully effective.

Your turn!  

Flash fiction is unique not only because of its diminutive size (generally understood as <1000 words). Flash is famous for its tight construction, vivid word choices, sharp dialogue, and (often, though not always) twists at the end which turn the story on its head. And we have such high expectations for that tiny space!

In your view, should a flash piece tell a complete story? How important is the “twist”? When a story ends on a cliffhanger, if other elements are strong, can the piece still work?

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5 thoughts on “Flash Points: SJ O’Hart

  1. As long as I am pulled in enough to want to read until the end, I would consider it effective. If the last line gives it a punch – which often is a must to me, or at least when I am writing flash it is – then that adds that little extra. If the whole story is complete, then brilliant. But the ever famous ‘six word piece of flash by Hemmingway – ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ – asks more questions than it answers. If you can see that there is a whole story behind it, it gives it depth, keeps you interested. This particular piece has great pace, and great emotion – using short sentences and tactile expressions (her breathe quickened, the pressure in her chest almost grew, cold and heavy in her hands), so you feel it, not just hear or see it. Using all the senses. Someone said that if a piece elicits an emotional response then it works, and I think that is true.

  2. My favorite thing about this piece is the use of her name. It strengthens and continues the ideas you were talking about. HE is the one who calls her by name through most of the piece, as she relives her past – as though she is still being defined by him. The blocking is all “she” UNTIL the end when “AMELIA slid towards the gun”, taking control of her life and her identity – resolving not to be defined BY him anymore. It is SO well done. Love it!

    As to the completeness of a piece, I waffle as well. I don’t feel this piece is a cliffhanger exactly. SJ isn’t telling the story of what happens when the abuser is confronted, but the story of Amelia’s conversion. Therefore it IS a complete story…even if we don’t know if her bluff works. There is a feeling of wholeness and satisfaction that wouldn’t occur if it was a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers are one of my biggest pet peeves as a reader – in short pieces or long. I’m fine with not knowing everything, but I need a completed arc…otherwise I just want to chuck it across the room! 😀

  3. I come from the point of view that a story should have an ending, but it doesn’t need to have a resolution. By this, I mean that as long as an ending has a purpose, and doesn’t simply peter out, it can work as open-ended. SJ’s writing is very strong, and I think the clever feature of this ending is that the gun is unloaded, and this is far more effective than finding out she shoots him with a loaded gun, for example. It’s a very memorable ending because Amelia has nothing but bluff which makes it so much more interesting and poignant. It seems to me to display figuratively the essence of their relationship: her intelligence versus his brute strength. Therefore, I think this story has a very purposeful ending that might well be diminished by a resolution.

  4. Thanks to everyone for your lovely comments. I’m really glad you liked Amelia’s story as much as I did, and you felt it ended in the right place. I really enjoyed writing the story, and I’m delighted you all enjoyed reading it! 🙂

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