§ WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD? As they say, ask a dozen readers and you’ll get a dozen answers. That’s as it should be, because stories resonate differently for each of us. The haunting poem speaking to you now and the clever satire speaking to me, may each take second place to the fledgling writer’s imperfect but heartfelt etude next week which clobbers us both. There’s a place in our heart-libraries for all of these voices; it’s what makes the worlds of reading and writing so diversely beautiful.
At the same time (yes, same time! voice and authenticity work in perfect tension with the more objective measures) it would be silly to pretend there aren’t powerful weapons writers can learn to wield, or literature professors would be out of a job. As one whose dragonpast includes heaps of word judgery, I’m delighted to re-share with you this Fire&Ice season a clawful of my FF flash favorites along with a few comments on why they caught my dragoneye. First up: join us for a leap back in time with Flashdog Image Ronin.
This original Flash Points posted June 9, 2014
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: Bell Tower
Word limit: 140 – 160 words
Today’s chosen flash piece: The Messenger, by Image Ronin
From the bell tower Arcane watched orange flowers bloom in the twilight. One after the other, a constellation of beacons spluttered into life, sending their plight to the capital.
There was nothing else he could do. Arcane slumped down by the bell, whose rough rope had flayed the skin from his hands. He had tolled The Sentinel till his shoulders had ached, her solemn declaration almost overwhelming the screams and sounds of battle that emanated from the village.
Tolled till orange flowers bloomed.
The sound of wood giving way to force stirred Arcane back to reality. The invaders had gained entry. Soon they would ascend the worn stone steps to find the young scholar.
Shoulders complaining, Arcane took up his axe and buckler. He had hoped the invaders would have moved on, or that the Capital’s knights would arrive in time.
But such thoughts were that of a child.
Now he had to die as a man.
It’s fun seeing how a photo often sends writers’ minds on similar treks. An ancient bell tower and a theme of “fire” brought a flurry of tales of warning and destruction. A few writers’ entries stood out as fresh and unique: Brett Milam, of course, and his (winning) metaphorical interpretation; Tamara Shoemaker and William Goss and their poetic spins; and Maggie Duncan for a futuristic twist. When approaching a writing prompt, rejecting that first idea that pops into your head can be a helpful way to make sure your story will stand out from the others. Look beyond the obvious, the superficial, and dare to take a story in a totally different direction.
Image Ronin‘s The Messenger follows suit with the majority who wrote of the onslaught of war and an individual’s dramatic actions at the bell tower. In the case of this story, then, it is not the concept but the execution that sets it apart. Let me tell you a few things I love about this piece.
The story is written tightly and cleanly. The 150-word threshold at FF is roomier than one might think, but it does not allow for the tiniest bit of excess. No extra thats, no wasted movements, no character’s idle thoughts. Every sentence, every word, needs to push the story forward, which it does beautifully in this story. That’s some fantastic editing! Nothing could be cut from “The Messenger” without losing an important element. It is also grammatically clean and typo-free.
Many flash fiction writers’ first drafts are hundreds of words long, and then they hack at the story to meet the word count (like Cinderella’s stepsisters and the glass slipper!!). This is, of course, a perfectly valid approach; no writer can tell another the “right” way to pen a tale. The problem, however, is you need the right amount of story for the allotted space. In my own writing, sometimes it helps to worry less about cutting away words and first think a bit more about cutting down the underlying plot. Notice how much “The Messenger” doesn’t tell us. There’s zero backstory. We don’t know the country, the politics, the names of the invaders, whether the protagonist has a family. But in this piece those things are extraneous. The story Image is telling us, after all, isn’t of a village’s lost battle; it’s the very specific, very tiny arc of a single moment: a character’s shift from childhood to maturity.
In a similar vein, it’s easy to think of flash fiction top-down, i.e. sawing off the blubber. It can sometimes be more helpful to think bottom-up. In other words, instead of focusing on the extra words, look at the primary words. Some of the most powerful flash fiction is accomplished by words with multiple jobs. Look at some of the tools Image uses in his story:
Interesting, evocative verbs
Arcane slumped down by the bell.
beacons spluttered into life
Intentional structure (here, repeated phrases which echo the sounding of the bell)
Arcane watched orange flowers bloom
He had tolled The Sentinel
Tolled till orange flowers bloomed
Strong sensory language
Arcane watched orange flowers bloom
rough rope had flayed the skin from his hands
overwhelming the screams and sounds of battle
The sound of wood giving way
Subtle little trick
Note the MC’s name, Arcane, which means Understood by few; mysterious; secret. How perfect!
And finally, “The Messenger” has something to say. It isn’t “just” a story. In this respect, its theme of defiance in the face of despair is reminiscent of many other stories this week, including the winner’s. What makes that heroic theme unique here is the defiance is only superficially against the invaders. The greater defiance is against his own exhaustion and pain, his inexperience, the immature temptation to put himself first. Man vs. self, as they say. That’s a heck of a textured battle for 150 words, and that layering of depth launches this story to another level altogether.
Your turn! How do you approach a prompt? What tools do you use in your own flash writing which have proven the most effective?