Welcome to Flash Points. Today’s post resurrects an old (ish) romp in which a story from the previous week’s competition is devoured for its deliciousness, bite by bite. In other words, we look at it up close and personal to help us in our pursuit of what makes great flash. Hungry? Let’s eat!
Prompt: Queen Victoria political cartoon
Word limit: 140 – 160 words
Today’s chosen flash piece: For Queen and Country, by Sarah Cain
“A great victory, my Queen.”
Thanks to his negotiations, they had added another shining jewel to their empire: a country of millions. When he presented the Queen with the treaty, she had been pleased, though she had kept her countenance grave in line with the occasion.
“We shall be fair and just rulers,” she had said, “as we have throughout the centuries.”
He had bowed. Throughout the centuries the kings and queens of the realm had boiled people or devised other gruesome means of dealing with those who displeased the crown. Only the royals could afford such ignorance and arrogance.
Later he stared at the cartoon from the local paper and recognized himself: the object of scorn, the power-seeker, the eternal Jew, with the fair and innocent Queen. He crumpled the paper in his fist.
Let the little people believe what they would.
Whatever he did was for his country, even when his country despised him for it.
This week two stories lodged themselves in my brain and would NOT let go, no matter how I writhed. So stay tuned for a FIRST TIME EVER second edition of Flash Points tomorrow! But first up: join me in lovingly picking apart For Queen and Country by two-time Flash! Friday champ Sarah Cain.
I wanted to begin with background discussion of Benjamin Disraeli, the Suez Canal, Endymion, and his important labor reforms, and then relate a few of his tellingly colorful quotations (“How does one handle the Queen?” –“First of all, remember she is a woman.”)–until suddenly I realized FP would end up a biography (of this extraordinary and powerful politician!) instead of a literary critique. And while knowing something of Disraeli may add texture to this story, it isn’t needed. Ultimately, the best flash fiction story stands on its own, which Sarah’s piece here does perfectly. You don’t need to see the prompt cartoon. You don’t need names, dates, or politics to understand her deft work. In fact, notice how she doesn’t include names at all — this character study could belong to any politician and his queen, in any world, at any time.
And this piece is, in the end, a character study. The story is masterfully unveiled, bit by bit, driven not by plot but by character. I often wax on about what elements can make a story stand out, and this is certainly a biggie: Sarah has approached the prompt uniquely, crafting not a story of events but the story of a man’s character. This dynamic allows her great flexibility in the story’s telling, as she is not bound by sequence or, really, even time itself.
In fact, take a look with me for a second at her fluid movements through time: the grammar of the first half places it in the distant/explanatory past:
When he presented the Queen with the treaty, she had been pleased.
Next Sarah shifts from the scene in the removed past to a place outside of time, an internal exposition on the eternal behaviors of rulers.
Throughout the centuries the kings and queens of the realm had boiled people or devised other gruesome means of dealing with those who displeased the crown.
Such a transition connects the first scene to the second scene, the man’s confrontation with the cartoon’s mockery; but it also gives us further insight into the man and how he sees himself. More on that in a second. The third section of this story is marked clearly:
Later he stared at the cartoon from the local paper and recognized himself
This timestamp brings us to the closer past and the protagonist’s present. It is a beautifully structured story, with two halves hinging on a climax of bitter exposition.
The other strong element that really works in this piece is its internal tension. All stories need it in some shape or another: we need a reason to keep reading. Conflict, after all, is not the sole property of car chases. Instead of a whodunnit (much as I love those! Holmes forever!), we follow the politician’s mental journey. Watch this:
Thanks to his negotiations He gives himself full credit for the triumph
their empire He sees himself as the empire’s co-owner
When he presented the Queen with the treaty, she had been pleased, though she had kept her countenance grave in line with the occasion. He believes he truly understands the queen.
He had bowed… Only the royals could afford such ignorance and arrogance. He sees himself as cunning and wise, superior to the rulers and a major player in history.
Let the little people believe what they would. He sees himself as superior to non-rulers too.
Whatever he did was for his country, even when his country despised him for it. He knows better than the entire nation.
This progression of arrogance makes me giddy. Such obscene confidence! The tension builds from the very beginning: arrogance over a single maneuver; arrogance over a single ruler; arrogance over all rulers; arrogance over all people; arrogance over all nations. LOOK AT THAT!!!! Do you see what Sarah did?? It’s still movement – it’s still conflict – but it’s accomplished in perspective, in thought, rather than physical action. This is sophisticated development, and it’s magnificent.
Amazing work, Sarah. Like Jess pointed out in her judge’s notes yesterday, the best writing is unselfconscious, the kind which does so much while making us feel it was easy. You’ve got so much going on here, perhaps only our suspicious eyes can catch a true glimpse. Thank you!