Flash Points: John Mark Miller

FlashPoints3

Welcome to Flash Points, a totally un-terrifying feature in which a fabulous story from the most recent round of Flash! Friday gets surgicalized. In other words, we stare at it long and hard to see which of us blinks first.

Prompt: Nuclear winter recon

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  We Wereby John Mark Miller

Captain’s Log: 3065 AD

The Intrepid IX arrived on the planetoid called Pluto three months ago. Only eight survived the 32-year space voyage, and upon arriving we discovered that just as we feared, the sun has gone supernova. Nobody on Earth could survive such broiling heat.

We wear thermal suits and weighted boots to protect us from the extreme cold (375 degrees below zero) and the weak gravitational pull. We thought the suits would also protect us from space radiation. Then our hair started falling out.

I advised my crew to hold on – that others would come. They maintained hope. And one by one, I watched them die.

Now I’m alone. I write this now so there might be some evidence of humanity. What shall I say of us? We lived boldly and loved well, but in the end, the universe grew weary of us.

Oxygen…failing…world ……cold………

unyielding……but we………

were……………….

What works

I’m going to kick off today’s post by reminding you of (or introducing you to) an uncomfortable unforgettable character, Ramon from that sure-to-be (any day now) film classicThe ProposalThe movie primarily takes place in a town so small, a single person – in this case, the dauntless Ramonserves as the town’s caterer, minister, mobile phone rep, and entertainer. Please don’t stop reading, but the best flash fiction, including today’s story, reminds me a lot of Ramon: it does a lot of totally different things all at once.

A journal entry from the last survivor isn’t, in itself, an original concept (you can find via Project Gutenberg or Wikimedia Commons similar entries from various explorers; such good reading). That said, the entry presented by “We Were” is done well. Rather than making us work hard to determine the story’s context (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; most readers aren’t afraid of a little work), John Mark tells us right off:

Captain’s Log: 3065 AD

Before a full sentence is completed, we already recognize the format: it’s a journal entry, written by a future commander of some sort. I love how these four words already establish the time, character, and nature of the story. Four words, the story’s not even truly begun yet, and we already know so much. Talk about multitasking! Yep. That’s got Ramon all over it.

The story itself moves along at a fair clip, its first paragraph devoted to background. Normally I’m in the camp that says exposition belongs later – start with conflict, please – but flash fiction is all about bending rules of structure and technique for the end result. And because its pacing is good, tight, concise, informative and, perhaps most significantly, conveys recent history, we keep reading.

Then check out what our clever author does at the beginning of the second paragraph, just four sentences in:

We wear thermal suits and weighted boots

Do you see what he did there? So small, it’s easy to miss: a tense shift from past to present. Like I waxed on with Sarah Cain’s story last week, it’s crucial to use every weapon in the arsenal to push the story forward, adding tension, conflict, stress, troubletroubletrouble. An element as small as a grammatical shift can pull that off all by its lonesome.

Mind you, it’s not a permanent shift; John Mark pulls us back in time again, though just briefly, to tell more of the past three months’ horrors:

Then our hair started falling out.

I advised my crew to hold on – that others would come. They maintained hope. And one by one, I watched them die.

Now I’m alone. 

Shift. Back to the present we go, and the present is not a good one.

Don’t forget, though, that this week is all about Ramon. Check out all the tension created by the story’s middle, its heart:

We wear thermal suits and weighted boots to protect us from the extreme cold (375 degrees below zero) and the weak gravitational pull. We thought the suits would also protect us from space radiation. Then our hair started falling out.

I advised my crew to hold on – that others would come. They maintained hope. And one by one, I watched them die.

LOVE this crafty work. Look again in slo-mo:

thermal suits / extreme cold

weighted boots / weak gravitational pull

suits [to] protect us / our hair started falling out

crew / one by one

maintained hope / watched them die

Here John Mark isn’t just telling a tired old story, handing us flat facts or events. These central paragraphs provide a serious list of angry opposites, establishing further the crushing tension between what is hoped for and what is. Since the story’s strong plot is already rather stressful on its own (do the remaining survivors make it??), this sneaky structure makes it a double whammy. Yay, Ramon!

Two more elements to cover, and I’ll leave you be. First is the story’s wonderful, ironic frame. One of my favorite literary features in writing of any length or genre is that sweet satisfaction of an ending that echoes the beginning. It’s a lovely touch, so subtle and light here:

The Intrepid IX arrived

then

unyielding……but we………

were……………….

The parallel of “Intrepid” and “unyielding… but we… were….” is both heart-wrenching and compelling, as a hero’s death ought to be. 

And now: the best for last, of course. Flash fiction with staying power – again, like many other types of writing – almost always has something to say beyond the plot. Something new, or interesting, or universal, maybe. We are the same, it might say. You are not alone. There is more to life than this.

In “We Were,” John Mark boldly tackles an incredibly enormous question: What does it mean to be human? This is a discussion reserved for philosophers and PhDs, surely; one that cannot be addressed fully in thousands of annotated pages. So in a 150-word story? Impossible. Ridiculous. Arrogant!

We lived boldly and loved well, but in the end, the universe grew weary of us.

{{Nor does this line does offer its answer in isolation. Remember: Intrepid. Unyielding.}} 

What grabs me about this attempt, though, isn’t the conclusion itself, as compelling an idea as a heroic humanity is. It’s how the very effort to summarize all of humanity in a single sentence mirrors the effort of flash fiction writers to cram an entire world, a complete plot, a complex, realistic character, into the tiniest possible space.

For me, then, this story is reminiscent of a concrete poem (the poem about birds is shaped like a bird). Or maybe onomatopoeia (the word sounds like what it is, like buzz). Or like Norman Rockwell’s glorious triple self-portrait, painting himself painting himself painting himself…

Even as the captain condenses humanity into a sentence, John Mark is condensing a plot, character, and, while he’s at it, all of humanity into 150 words. The captain is doing the very thing the writer is. It’s enough to make one’s head spin. What gorgeous complexity and double entendre-type structuring.

(Ramon, you should know, is also a really great spinner.)

Thank you, John Mark, for this bold, compelling, wonderfully designed and executed piece.

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4 thoughts on “Flash Points: John Mark Miller

  1. Reblogged this on The Artistic Christian and commented:
    My flash fiction piece was selected by Flash! Friday for this week’s “Flash Points,” where one story is closely examined to help all of us improve our flash writing skills. It was so humbling to have my story dissected line by line, but Rebekah Postupak did an amazing job (as always)… thanks for selecting my piece, Flash Friday!

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