Flash Fiction Turn-ons and Turn-offs (part 2)

Yesterday, I began with part one, the first 3 turn-ons and 5 turn-offs. In this part, I finish with the final 4 turn-ons and 12 turn-offs.

(Sounds like I’m designing a freeway, doesn’t it?)

I briefly want to reiterate one small point from the introduction (just in case you didn’t read it or don’t remember it from part one). 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. There’s only what you like (or dislike) and what you like (or dislike) about it. Therefore, especially if I linked to your story to exemplify one of my dislikes, if you think I’m full of BS… well, you’re probably right.

(Also remember that I wrote this on Wednesday and Thursday, even though it’s posted on Friday. The #FlashFriday stories I link to are from last week.)

While I listed the first 3 turn-ons in order of importance, the last 4 I consider about as important as each other. These are more like pet peeves, but serious enough to keep me from favoriting your story.

The first of these is…

4. Breakneck Pace

A flash story is short, by definition, under 1,000 words. So there’s no room for ebb and flow. It’s bing-bang-boom, wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and that’s all she wrote. The End.

A novel is a marathon. You have to pace yourself, keep yourself hydrated, take time to enjoy the scenery, maybe take a lunch break. But a flash story is a sprint. You start with a bang, run as fast as you can, and finish hard.

This is one reason I dislike multiple scenes in flash. (Turn-off #6.) And each week I pass by several otherwise-promising #FridayFlash stories, simply because I got into the first scene, and then the story dropped me off the face of the earth and expected me to start again with scene 2. Scene transitions break momentum. Effective flash stories are a single scene long. If you really need multiple scenes, jump from one to the next without a break. In other words, combine multiple scenes into a single one. (And if that makes your story too confusing, rewrite the story.)

There’s also no room in a flash story for reminiscences that dwell on a moment rather than move the story forward. (Turn-off #7.) “Rum Balls,” by Becca Brown, is a case in point. I mention this story, because I really liked it. But it didn’t make my favorite list, because it has no momentum. It also suffers because the character doesn’t grow. It’s a reminiscence. The rum balls remind the character of younger days, I guess, but they never move him beyond the candy store or the bus station. Even in a novel, a scene like this wouldn’t work, because it doesn’t move the story forward. Every scene must move the story forward. And nowhere is this more true than in a flash story, where you only have one scene to work with.

A related malady is the travelogue syndrome. (Turn-off #8.) I first learned of the travelogue syndrome in connection with song lyrics. This is when the verses of a song have no connection except that they happen to share the same chorus. In the best lyrics, each verse builds on and relates to the other verses as well as to the chorus. The travelogue syndrome is when a lyric feels like a travelogue, like a book about all the interesting things to see in Hawaii, which have no relation to each other, save that they all happen to be located in Hawaii. I find this can happen in stories, too, when a writer goes on with long lists of items that have no relation to each other, except that they happen to be describing the same character or setting.

DJ Young’s story, “The Celebrity,” suffers from the travelogue syndrome. He starts with the line, “I used to be everyone.” And then he proceeds to describe everyone. She never actually makes it to the story. Again, I realize that she’s not writing for readers like me. She’s writing for readers who want to experience the language as an end in itself, and that’s cool. However, I like to have something more than just pretty-sounding words, and this is one of the things that will keep a story from making my favorites list.

Lastly, some stories rely too heavily on “What the hell is going on?!” as a major conflict. (Turn off #9.) This is sure to slow down the story. You get one of these for free at the beginning, because at that point, your reader doesn’t know anything about your story. But within the first couple of paragraphs, you need to replace it with something more substantive. You can’t keep the suspense going on forever. But Denise Covey tries, with a literary piece “Today Belongs to Her,” about a woman on her “last day.” What does that mean, her “last day”? We never actually find out. (Maybe she’s dying. I mention that below under “clichés.”)

5. A Relevant Theme

I like stories that are about something. I will enjoy stories that are just fun or funny or entertaining. But the stories I adore the most, they touch me in a special place, apply to life in a broader sense. They’re about something. Most stories that have compelling character needs (see turn-on #1) also address some part of the human condition. It happens automatically. Other stories seem to have been designed with a theme in mind. However it happens, I love stories that are about something more than just the plot and characters.

Some stories, I’m not sure what to make of them. To me, they appear implausible and irrelevant. (Turn-off #10.) Such as Anneke Klein’s “The Adoption.” The tale begins with a barren couple who desperately want to adopt a child. So far so good. They travel to a foreign orphanage, where they discover that the “child” is actually an adult little person. There’s so many things wrong with that plot, I’m not sure where to begin. Maybe it was supposed to be funny, and humor is so subjective. But all I see is implausible and irrelevant.

Other stories, reading one, I feel like it must be about something, but… WHOOSH! Right over my head. (Turn-off #11.) Themes can be subjective things, too. Such as “Fallen” by NL Gervasio. A wonderful story, I think. Reads like a deep parable, or a folk legend of some sort, written to encompass the best tradition myth has to offer. But I simply don’t get it. “Beautiful and stunning,” as one commenter noted. But what’s it about? Not being able to answer that question, or even to sense an answer, is what keeps this story off my favorites list.

6. A Challenging Perspective

Just as I like stories that say something, I appreciate stories that say something different. I want a story that presents an unusual perspective, or portrays the complexity of the universe, challenges the status quo, takes me out of my comfort zone.

Not every story has to turn my world upside down, of course. My favorite #FlashFriday story of the week, Jane Travers’s “The Shades of Chawton,” does not shatter the earth. But it says to me that there is a reader out there who actually gets you as an author, and appreciates you. I think every author sometimes feels disconnected from her audience, alone and unappreciated, and she wants to make a difference in the world through her passion, her writing. Maybe that’s not earth-shattering, but it’s enough for me.

I want a story to portray an unconventional truth, but I don’t want it to preach at me. (Turn-off #12.) I definitely don’t want it to preach simplistic, pop perspectives at me. Maybe that’s fall-out from growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, where every TV show, it seemed, had to do at least one “Drugs are bad!” episode. I roll my eyes. No issue is that simplistically one-sided.

This effect is what kept Adam J. Keeper’s “Aliens at the Foot of my Stair” off my favorite’s list. The father takes a noble (though simplistic) stand on an issue, and then after the aliens conquer earth, he changes his mind, believing that if he had been more ignoble, the kids would have scared the aliens off forever with their toy, plastic ray guns. On the other hand, now I’m reconsidering whether this story should be added to my favorites, after the fact, because I’m seeing now that it can also be read as a satire on the way our society treats life issues (especially politics). Unfortunately, even if you have something to say, and even if your story says it with mastery, some people (including me) may not “get” it. Interpreting fiction can be quite subjective.

A little less subjective is the cliché. (Turn-off #13.) I’m willing to forgive a cliché, if it’s part of an otherwise compelling story. I overlook faster-than-light space travel in an otherwise engaging space opera, for example. But stories that try to rely on a cliché will usually make me roll my eyes. Back when I was younger, the big cliché to avoid was the dream sequence: the character wakes up at the denouement, revealing that the entire story was just a dream, thereby solving any problem he was stuck in. (That’s not only a cliché; it’s also cheating. See #7 below.) Reading #FridayFlash, I see a lot of stories in which the characters are all ghosts, or in which everybody dies at the end (which is also cheating). Obviously, ghost stories are fine; I enjoy ghost stories. My favorite #FridayFlash of the week was in fact a ghost story. Just do something interesting with the ghost.

7. A Satisfying Ending

When I was taking singing lessons, my vocal instructor told me that the two most important notes of the song are the first note and the last note, because the first note you sing impacts the listener’s first impression, and the last note is the one they’ll remember. Even if your voice cracks in the middle of the song, if you end on that sing-song last note with confidence and power, that’s what they’ll remember. Similarly, the two most important lines of a story are the first and the last. The two most important paragraphs are the first and the last. The two most important parts are the beginning and the ending. Numerous stories fail at the beginning, with prose that fail to engage me or characters that fall flat. But others ironically turn me off with their endings.

An effective ending should resolve the conflicts in the story in a natural progression from what came before. It’s not necessarily a happy ending. I love happy endings, but not all endings I love are happy. I also love twists, as long as they follow from the rest of the story.

I tend to dislike shock-and-awe endings. (Turn-off #14.) That is, endings where the world suddenly turns upside down, just so that the plot doesn’t follow logically from what you’d expect. I like twists, but that’s a different post. Suffice it to say that twists follow logically and naturally from what came before. Shock-and-awe endings violate the implicit contract between reader and writer, that the story will follow the rules of the story universe and won’t try to wiggle out of a bad situation on a technicality.

Obvious examples are deus ex endings, endings where the character wakes up and finds it’s all a dream, and (in #FridayFlash at least) stories in which the characters die, thereby solving all their problems. Consider Gracie Motley’s story, “Noise,” which I cite because it lies right on the line between twist and shock-and-awe. I sympathized with the character. I wrestle with the noise of modern life. (I’m wrestling with it right now, as I type. All I want is a quiet place to write without interruption. Is that too much to ask?) But letting the character die, aren’t there more constructive ways to get some peace and quiet? It may be plausible that a slip in the tub could cause her to bump her head and drown to death. But it all just seems too convenient, plot-wise. I understand what Gracie was doing, trying to use an Hitchcockian twist, and Hitchcock himself told some stories like this, and I don’t really appreciate them, either. This is all so subjective. I guess I just want a character who takes her life in her own hands, not one who has her own life taken from her hands.

Some stories simply end when the conflict has reached its peak, the cliff-edge ending. (Turn-off #15.) Carrie Clevenger’s story “Come Together” does this. The plane loses one engine, then the other. I get that Carrie wanted to bring the family together in a crisis, and she did that. But it’s left in the air whether they survive or not. The two obvious alternatives are that they all die (turn-off #14, above), or else one or more of the characters survive an horrific plane crash, which only thickens the plot (turn-off #16, below). I wanted to know how the story ends, not just to be dropped off the edge of a cliff.

Other stories thicken the conflict instead of resolving it. (Turn-off #16.) “Parchment of Love” by Eric J. Krause demonstrates what I mean. I get that the story is Rich’s love story, and as soon as Rich’s true love marries Johnny, the story is over. Except that Johnny is a jerk-wad, and the tale naturally turns from love to revenge. How is Rich going to respond to having his heart torn out and stomped all over? Better yet, how is jerk-wad Johnny going to respond to being married. Oh, he thinks he’s not married, but remember the warning on the spell he used— Trust me, he’s married. What’s that going to do Rich’s true love, caught in the middle? So instead of resolving the conflict, this story created two, more-intense conflicts. That’s called thickening the plot, which is a key stage of storytelling… but not the very last stage.

Lastly, occasionally, a story will solve a different problem than it sets up. (Turn-off #17.) For example, “Balance”, by Diandra Linnemann: The problem is that the main character (the narrator) feels he’s gotten a bum rap from life. His marriage has broken up; his kids won’t talk to him; he’s out of money. He says he’s going to get back on his feet, but you wonder whether there’s something wrong with him that keeps pushing him down. Then you find out that his good friend Jones fraudulently charged up his credit cards and stole all his money, to get back at him for sleeping with Jones’s wife. I didn’t even know he had slept with Jones’s wife. Yes, that explains a lot, including an incomplete allusion somewhere in the middle of the story when the narrator is talking about Jones’s wife. But while it’s a neat hook, it doesn’t solve the problem, which is that he has no family and no money and is getting drunk at a bar somewhere. So this story didn’t make my list of favorites.

Ending on a High Note

I listed 17 turn-offs and only 7 turn-ons. With so many pitfalls, I don’t want you to think that your readers are impossible to please. (Although some of them are. I once heard of an author who got ripped and praised for exactly the same thing.) I truly believe that if you write what you yourself enjoy reading, you can find others who also enjoy it just as much as you do. Writing is a creative journey of self-discovery and self-expression. There’s really no right or wrong. There’s only convention and innovation, playing it safe and taking the dare. And when you take the dare and write what really matters to you, there will be some people who don’t get it. (Myself included.) I don’t think you should feel bad about that.

I wrote down these turn-ons and turn-offs not to pass judgement, but on the off-chance that you might feel the same way I do, but maybe you didn’t quite grasp why. Maybe in some small way, my insights can help you write the stories that you enjoy reading.

Keep writing!
-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

Catch me on:  my web site Facebook Twitter 

Comments

I think so far my only major disagreement is the multiple scenes one. To say that no story should have them and that any story with them must be rewritten is way too limiting. I get where you’re coming from; a TV show with copious commercial interruptions has a similar effect on me. But I think there’s a lot that can be done with a good scene break in terms of pacing and tension.

Good article!

thanks for reading my friday flash, I wanted to write a quick piece from the perspective of someone i’m not (e.g. a father of two kids). I agree there does appear to be the hint of a pointed ‘message’ that appeared when I finished it, to be honest i hadn’t spotted it until I published it and it wasn’t intended. If anything as a now expectant father it was more about my fears of being a moral compass to someone impressionable, arguably it was a bit of a writing exercise after a few to many beers on a Thursday night…. hmm…. Subjective indeed. I appreciate your comments though.

Re: #5 – I don’t write short stories often, so for me it’s like trying to encompass an entire novel in a limited space, kind of like writing the synopsis or query for a novel, which I hate doing. So I understand if you didn’t “get” my story. I thank you for stopping by and taking a look at it. You ask what it’s about? It tells you at the end of the story. I will admit, however, that I didn’t have enough room for detail or to flesh it out more so that your turn-off #11 wouldn’t happen. But then it wouldn’t have been a #fridayflash piece. =)

Thank you for your input. I appreciate it.

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