7 Flash-Fiction Turn-Ons (and 17 Turn-Offs)

Photo © 2009 sylvar CC 2.0 BY

PJ Kaiser suggested—probably because I’ve been doing weekly “#FridayFlash Favorites” posts—that I write about what catches my attention in a flash story, and what turns me off.

I thought that was a pretty kewl idea, and I further decided to link to last week’s #FridayFlash stories (because they’re still fresh in my mind) in order to demonstrate each point. As it turns out, this post has grown long enough to span over two days. So I’ll go through the first 3 turn-ons (and 5 turn-offs) today, and finish up tomorrow.

(Maybe I’ll post another follow up next week, the short version, just a checklist without the explanation. That’ll be far fewer words, but you’ll probably need to read the long version to understand what I’m talking about.)

Having sifted through about 100 stories a week since I started these posts, I’m probably qualified at least to venture an opinion. On top of that, I (usually) know what I like, and (usually) know how to write what I like—which also comes with experience—so I know why I like it.

Even so, my opinions are just that: opinions. The more experience I gain as a writer and author, the more I realize that there’s no right or wrong when it comes to creative expression. (Us indie authors, that’s our rightful motto, you know.) There’s only what you like (or dislike) and what you like (or dislike) about it. So as you go down the following list of positives and negatives—especially if I linked to your story to exemplify one of the negatives—if you think I’m full of BS… well, you’re probably right.

In general, I look for pretty much the same in flash as I look for in any story. The only difference between flash and longer stories is that flash fiction is, uh, shorter. Therefore, the best flash stories respect the length and use it to effect. Other than that, I admire the same qualities in flash that excite me about short stories, novellas, novels, movies, TV episodes, graphic novels, …

1. Compelling Character Need

The most important part of any story is the characters. If you have compelling characters, you can screw up elsewhere and get away with it, because we’re willing to overlook a few inconsistencies for characters that we love.

I’ve taken this to the extreme. I’ve been known to read two-bit, mis-edited indie novels that would get laughed out of the typical snarky-agent’s office, and rate them 4 and 5 stars, simply because they have great characters who dragged me into their lives and held my interest. And isn’t that what a story is supposed to do? I’m just admitting what I like about the stories I read.

So how do you make your characters compelling? It’s not enough to give them quirks, or qualities, or descriptions. You have to give them needs. That’s what turns them into real people, because everyone has needs, and everyone tries to meet his needs. The needs we have and how we try to meet them determine what kind of creature we are. Fish have fish needs. Lizards have lizard needs. Cats have cat needs. Dogs have dog needs. And the way we as humans pursue our human needs, that’s what makes us human.

I can clearly see the needs of not only the main character but also the secondary character in my favorite story this week, Jane Travers’s “The Shades of Chawton.” And that’s the first reason I loved it. (The second through seventh reasons I loved it follow below.) If you haven’t read it, and read it from the perspective of an author, like me, who just wants to write and to make a difference through his writing… Jane’s story is worth reading. Really, it moved me.

Characters that I fail to identify with may be missing a compelling need. (Turn-off #1.) More often, I suspect, they simply fail to reveal it. Maybe they’re not pursuing it. Or more likely, the author simply isn’t focusing on that need. It’s all in how you tell the story.

Take, for example, Jen Brubacher’s #FridayFlash, “Somewhere Else.” I mention this story, because I really liked it. But it didn’t make my favorites list, because I couldn’t figure out what the character’s compelling need was, or whether she even had one. She goes on vacation, does all sorts of things that are completely out of character for her, seems lonely. I felt for her, felt like I was beginning to get to know her. But what was she seeking? And did she find it? How did she feel about going back to the daily grind of her ordinary life? It’s not enough to merely feel for her; I want to understand her. I want to identify with her.

2. Character Growth

Coincidentally, I talked about character change and Aha! moments just yesterday. In that post, I posited that characters may sometimes grow—at least in our minds—because our perception of the character changes, even if the character herself does not change.

Even so, the traditional way to evoke character growth is to actually have the character change. For example, Melissa L. Webb’s story, “May I Come In?” A boy who’s too “old” to believe in monsters and the bogeyman, he reconsiders, because his grandfather always knocks on the door to an empty room, so that the monsters can clear out before he enters. The boy adopts the tradition of his grandfather, just to be safe. At the beginning of the story, the boy was too “old” to believe in monsters. At the end, he’s not necessarily too “old” anymore. That’s the Aha! moment. That’s character change.

The opposite of character change is, of course, character stasis. (Turn-off #2.) Consider Danielle La Paglia’s post, “Reflection.” Again, I mention this story, because I really liked it. A man faces himself in a mirror, which means he must face up to what he knows to be true. Yes, the “man meets himself” thing has been done and done and overdone before. So it might be a cliché. (See under #6 below.) But I’m frequently willing to forgive a cliché, as long as there’s something else there for me to hold onto. But this story didn’t make my favorites list, because the character ends up the same as he was at the beginning. My perception of the character doesn’t even grow, so that I might more fully appreciate him or learn something from him. There’s no Aha! moment.

3. Engrossing Narrative

Many readers put this at the top. I rank it up there, but at #3, because I’m willing to forgive a little boringness in exchange for compelling characters that bring me on a journey of self-discovery. Even so, I really do enjoy engrossing narrative. Usually, you spice up your narrative through plot and conflict, and the most reliable way to achieve it line-by-line is to use MRU’s (motivation-reaction units) in a pattern I call “ping-ponging.” That’s another post, but in short, narrate your story as though it were a ping-pong game, always on the edge of your seat as each player takes position and returns the ball to the other (or fails to return the ball).

The most common question I’ve been asked since I began the #FridayFlash Favorites is, how do I read through a hundred stories in a weekend? The answer is that most of them I don’t actually read. I do look at all the stories, all 100 or more of them each week, but most of them fail to engage me with their narrative. Somewhere between the second and fifth paragraph usually, I realize that my eyes have glazed over, and I can’t remember what I read 2 seconds ago, and I finally yell at myself in frustration, “Why do I care?!” And then I skip to the next story.

“Why do I care?!” narrative is the bane of my #FridayFlash existence. (Turn-off #3.) A variation on this is “…and then…” plotting and dialogue. ‘We did FOO and then we did X and Y and Z and then someone said “Ugh. Mee boo pob geee!” and then we threw up all over each other and went home. The End.’ I feel like I’m looking in on random characters performing random acts and talking to each other in disconnected statements. An effective plot is not just activity. That’s why the characters’ motivations and reactions are so important. They imbue activity with meaning. They turn mere ping-pong volleys into a game, with sides I can root for.

An example… There are so many of them. Here’s one: “Island Nights” by Laura Eno. I’m not trying to pick on Laura, and her story may in fact have something in it worth reading, but I simply never finished it. I barely started it. I read through where he woke up from his dream while he was suntanning, but I never discovered whether they decided what to have for dinner. Instead, my brain checked out and went for a walk. Eventually, I followed.

Sometimes a story is boring because it focuses too much on the gimmick. (Turn-off #4.) Most of the “telepathic parrot” stories this past weekend failed on this count. Gimmicks are like character quirks. Quirks can serve an already strong character, but they can’t make a weak character strong. Similarly, a gimmick can serve an already engrossing story, but it won’t turn a boring story into an interesting one. For an example of how to use a gimmick well, see “Bumwattle’s Bird,” Chris Chartrand’s “telepathic parrot” story. Note that the story doesn’t actually need a telepathic parrot. Chris could have written just as strong a story using almost any plot device, such as an exotic virus or a mind-controlling computer. (Or even zombies.) He doesn’t focus on the kewlness on the gimmick; therefore, the gimmick actually works in the context of the story.

Another common barrier to engrossing dialogue is verbiage so thick, I need a machete to make sense of it. (Turn-off #5.) For example, Karen Dash’s “Death Dance,” which is possibly a good story, except that it lost me somewhere between “susurration of his cloak wafting out in his wide berthed wake” and “pert tenacity of tripping the light fantastic in life, now elided into imagining they were auditioning for the great dance-off in the sky.” I realize that Karen was playing with the language here as an art form in itself, and many people love this sort of thing. I unfortunately am not one of them.

On online friend of mine posted last month that he was getting both laughs and blank stares with a phrase that I think should go on a tee-shirt: Extirpate sesquipedalianism!

(Continued: click here for part 2.)


5 responses to “7 Flash-Fiction Turn-Ons (and 17 Turn-Offs)”

  1. T.S. Bazelli Avatar

    That is a LOT of reading you do. Thank you for sharing a bit of what you’ve learned from it all. Looking forward to the continuation!

  2. Valerie Avatar

    Interesting list so far. The gimmick part intrigues me because while I agree that a gimmick can be a weak foundation for a story, at the same time I’ve seen publications specify that if the story can be written with some other gimmick or it’s nonessential, then the story is weak. There are probably shades of gray in there and I imagine the key lies in your other listed items somewhere.

  3. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Thanks, Tessa.

    Valerie, I think I may have phrased what I said about gimmicks poorly above. (I’ve edited it slightly now.) I’m not sure what the authors you refer to meant exactly, but maybe it was, like: let’s say you’re writing a novel with vampires, and you’ve built up this entire ethos around the vampires, a complete fictional world and a whole set of story conflicts all revolving around vampires; you can’t just rip out the vampires and replace them with werewolves, because that would be a different story. Whatever plot devices you use, you no doubt want to explore them fully, which means they’ll weave their way fully into your story. But at the same time, they’re still just plot devices. Your story isn’t cool because it has vampires in it, because someone can write a cool story about vampires or a boring story about vampires. Your story is cool, because it’s fun to read, and the fact that you used vampires is almost ancillary. At least, that’s what might be going on there.


  4. Valerie Avatar

    Yeah, Tim, I think you’ve got the right of it.

  5. rinzlerett Avatar

    Your really good at this. I am impressed. Thank you for the information, it was very much intriguing.

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