Flash Points: Jacki Donnellan


Welcome to Flash Points. This non-terrifying feature highlights the fabulousness of a story from the latest Flash! Friday in glorious and colorful detail. What makes powerful flash fiction? Let’s dig! 

Prompt: Child laborer

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  Untitledby Jacki Donnellan

Maybe the red stains on our fingers would be blood, from murdering some twisted, cruel sinner and avenging the lives of her kin.

Or maybe we’d pretend that these are the orchards of Fairyland, where rubies grow on trees, and we’d been sent to pick only the ripest ones for the Fairy Queen’s golden new crown.

And then, once my tummy starts its growling, maybe she’d open out a folded cloth, and show me a whole enormous pie. And when my basket’s so heavy that it nudges bruises onto my thighs, she’d grab hold of the handle, and we’d swing it between us like it was nothing but a bucket of feathers!

Later, when the day’s nearly over and I’m too tired to speak, she’d just work along beside me, and we’d hum happy tunes.

And because I’d have a friend, it would never feel like this.

Like picking moments off the bushes, one by one. By one. By one.

What works

This week’s photo once again wrenched our minds down several similar paths: many tales of poisoned berries wreaking revenge; stories of abuse; and stories, like Jacki’s here, of imaginary friends (and if you haven’t read Joidianne4eva’s terrifying interpretation, you must!). Like last week, I am reminded that so often what sets a story apart isn’t an original concept (though that is preferable of course!; see, eg, Margaret Locke‘s time-traveling spin) but rather its unique voice.

But let’s start off with the story’s powerful first line. Do you see what it does?? Jacki gives us important information which sets the stage and establishes the mood. The speaker (and presumed companions) are imagining the story of her red-stained fingers. She instantly draws tension between what is (stained fingers) and what might be (blood from murder). What works here is that tension. Opening with a murder scene could be attention-grabbing on its own. Opening with imagination might be too. But neither of those is what Jacki does: she kicks off her story with the unsettling feeling, There might have been a murder. Not even a normal murder, but a twisted one, one of vengeance. We the readers can’t conclude in a single line what has (or will) happen, but the first line is visceral, violent, and disturbing, and so we read on. 

From such a strong opening, Jacki then flips the story and presents a totally opposite scenario, a luxurious fairy tale in which the speaker (and presumed companions) are picking jewels for the queen. I love that the sweet fairy tale comes second; its placement here is consciously done and clever. On its own, it is sweet, almost saccharine, unremarkable. But it’s not on its own: it follows a dark, twisted murder. This right here is flash fiction structure at its best, where each word, each line, must serve several functions at once. The flip to an opposite scene–bloody violence to enchanted sweetness–serves here to continue, even build, the established tension. We’re like, Okay, what!? I thought there was going to be a murder! and are compelled to press on, faster, to find out what happens next. What marvelous work in only two sentences! And we read on.

Structurally, the next two paragraphs serve as the body of the story. The pace slows, giving us time to chew on our lostness for a moment. The speaker’s imaginings shift now to a simplier, more realistic world, one in which she is hungry and tired. For the first time there is a separation of the speaker and her companion; at first we think the pronoun she refers to the Fairy Queen, but we soon realize there are only two people here. This scene with its decadent picnic and childlike humming borrows the sweetness of the earlier fairytale. Even here, however, I love what Jacki does. In the middle of this scene of pure innocence, look: 

And when my basket’s so heavy that it nudges bruises onto my thighs

Bruises? In the middle of a children’s happy picnic? The concept is jarring, disturbing. The bruises don’t fit the scene, and they bring into sharp memory the contrast of the two first sentences, the murder and the fairytale. It’s a subtle and perfect way of continuing the tension without our even realizing it.

The final two sentences bring a full-circled, flawless balance to the story–the end, as in the beginning. Structurally, it’s marvelous. But of course, as Jacki does earlier, these sentences accomplish more than one thing. The penultimate provides the missing piece of the puzzle: 

And because I’d have a friend, it would never feel like this.

The conditional tense pushes the speaker’s friend away from her into the imaginary realm. The forward-looking pronoun this tells us reality is the exact opposite of her dreams of justice, wealth, contentment, a full belly, and friendship. Love, love, LOVE. This is one busy sentence, y’all, and it’s the heart of the story. The real and the imagined clash here like Charybdis, pushing the tension forward and again flipping the reader’s expectations. In a single sentence we learn the friend isn’t real, nor are the projected happiness or sense of justice. In twelve words we realize the speaker suffers injustice, poverty, hunger, loneliness. Wow. This sentence is awesome

Jacki’s final paragraph shifts us fully into reality. 

Like picking moments off the bushes, one by one. By one. By one.

Here the forward-pushing tension crashes to a stop in discordant arrythmia. “One by one” reads smoothly, ahhh, satisfying in our ears. But we’re jerked to a start again.

By one.

And again.

By one.

The ending is rough, raw. The gorgeous imagery of pulling moments of time rather than berries off bushes startles us, and the ending feels uneven, mimicking the unsettling images from the story’s beginning. Jacki’s touch here is deft, light. She never tells us about the speaker openly, but between the lines we can glean her life of sorrow and suffering. And in a way only the most powerful stories can accomplish: we grieve, and we remember.

And what greater salute to the real girl of the photo, Rose Biordo? We remember. Awesome work, Jacki. Thank you.

Your turn! How much thought do you give to a story’s structure when writing? What approach works best for you, and why/how? What comes first for you, plot, structure, theme, or character? Spill!


2 thoughts on “Flash Points: Jacki Donnellan

  1. So many of this week’s stories were stunningly excellent, but had I been judge, Jacki’s story would have won (no offense to the marvelous winning story, which I also loved!). I kept coming back to it – I must have read it 4 or 5 times at least – and while I don’t have Rebekah’s amazing ability to insightfully deconstruct the story, I knew it worked for me. Again and again. And again. And again.

    • Wow, Margaret, thank you so much for such kind and supportive comments. I’m so grateful. And-I have said it already on Twitter, but I’ll say it here too-thank you, Rebekah, for Flash Points. Such a fascinating and informative feature for us Flash!Friday participants, for whom you already provide such a great flash-fiction fun-park every week. 🙂

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