Flash Is a Machine of Compression

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared at Ethel Rohan’s blog “Straight From the Hip,” December 2009

In “Notes on Novel Structure” from Words Overflown By Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program, Douglas Glover refers to the novel as “a machine of desire,” one in which “the writer generally tries to announce the desire, goal, or need of the primary character as quickly as possible.” The key, Glover believes, “is to make this desire concrete and simple.”

First off, I love the idea of fiction as a machine. The novel’s machinery—Glover “breaks down the novel into six major structures: point of view, plot, novel thought, subplot, theme, and image patterning”—exists to produce what one would expect it to produce—a novel. I often hear writers say, “I am writing a novel,” but rarely do I hear them say, “I am producing a novel.” Produce is chock-full of interesting meanings: manufacturing, birthing, exhibiting, and even farming (as in the produce market).

Flash fiction, rather than the novel, has captured my time and interest, and I wonder what it might mean to switch from “writing flash” to “producing flash.” Out of what materials does one construct such a thing? How might these same materials be used differently by the writer producing the short story, the novella, the novel, and so on? For example, I believe flash arises more out of its title and first line than say the novel. While a novel arises out of a character’s desire, I think flash arises less out of character’s desire and more out of a writer’s desire. Maybe that desire is to bend words to one’s will, to fill that tiny container with something too large for its confines, to develop a story out of white space, to see how much can be implied, and so on.

Of course, there exists that flash driven into existence by a character’s yearning, and the machinery then finds a way to turn that abstract desire into something concrete and active. It occurred to me recently, though, that a few hundred words isn’t much time to become attached to a character, to that moment when the character goes all in for his/her heart’s desire. If I had to fill in the blank for flash—flash is a machine of [blank]—I’d say that it’s a machine of compression. What exactly does that mean, then, for the flash writer?

I’m not exactly sure. For me, it means manufacturing titles that work to create an entire history, the back story, the subtext/subplot, the first and last line, and so on; producing words that hint at all the words I’ve omitted; creating an essential action, rather than a series of ones; fabricating characters readers can attach to in the space of a few words (mother, father, son, lover, boss); inventing the encounter that is both strange and archetypal; and so on.

Imagine a flash fiction piece that begins with “He entered his parents’ bedroom and discovered….” I discard the expected things: his parents’ having sex, Christmas presents, a dead body, and so on.” I discard the history of that character, the backstory. There is a title that might imply these things. This action, his entering this bedroom on this day, must be the essential action of his life. There is no series of thwarted actions. There is only this.

He entered his parents’ bedroom and found the contract, signed in red ink, an Open Marriage. He entered his parents’ bedroom and found boxes of Scope, stuffed in the space behind his mother’s dresses. He entered his parents’ bedroom and found the silver dollar, the one his grandfather sent through the air.

And so on. Hundreds of things, aren’t there?, to be found. It isn’t about trying and failing, trying and failing, about the machine producing an entire novel’s worth of iterations of the same conflict, over and over, until finally the desire is satisfied, with a yes!, no!, maybe so!

It’s about this one time, this one thing. It’s about the weight of things, with so much of that flash depending upon the singularity you discover to fill in that blank. He entered his parents’ bedroom and found [?]. Imagine if the title were “Before He Found the Contract.” What would he discover then? How might compression work to produce that flash fiction, to recreate that moment we all had as children, that fall from innocence into experience, the realization that the world doesn’t know what to do with our innocence except to find ways to destroy it. Unlike the novel that is read over a period of days or weeks or months, the flash isn’t a thing readers live with for awhile; it is like a passing stranger, one of those ephemeral encounters that make up so much of our lives. Imagine if whenever I think of the fall from childhood, I’m drawn back to your flash, those five minutes we had together. Imagine that flash is a machine of compression, not just of words and action and characterization but also of emotion, not the kind that takes forever to be realized, but a different kind, the one borne of tight packaging, like the force put upon atoms and their desire to matter.

About Randall Brown

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning flash fiction collection Mad to Live (Flume Press 2008). He teaches at and directs Rosemont College's MFA in Creative Writing Program. His short and very short fiction has been published widely, and his essay "Making Flash Count" appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field (Rose Metal Press 2009). He will also be appearing in the forthcoming Norton Anthology of "hint fiction."
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