In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, writer Joyce Chong discusses how flash fiction reflects life’s ambiguities and frees up writers and readers to experiment. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Joyce Chong
I’ve only started to realize recently that flash fiction is not just about the story or the plot—the what came first, then next, or the what came last. The stories that stick with me most leave me with something less tangible than just the journey or a sense of familiarity with the characters. Flash fiction has the ability to leave doors open, to ask questions that it knows can’t easily be answered. While in a novel every conflict is expected to be tied up by the end, flash fiction revels in undoing those knots, leaving the ends open and frayed.
In Diane Schoemperlen’s The Antonyms of Fiction, the main character relays the story of her meeting, falling in and then subsequently out of love with a man named Jonathan Wright. The story is told over fragments, broken into sections titled “Fact,” “Truth,” “Non-Fiction,” “Poetry,” among others, and even begins to take on the forms that each headline suggests. Schoemperlen mixes meta-fiction with a fragmented, experimental format that left me wondering what’s true, and where does the voice of the character mix with the voice of the author confessing that this is all fiction? What do we consider fact versus truth versus reality?
Schoemperlen asks us to not to trust her—or the narrator—and instead asks us to read beyond the lines. There is an ending, there is a way to make sense of it, but years after I read it, the first thing I remembered was the categories, the confession, the sensation of watching the fiction crack and break down in front of me. This story wants you to do more than just suspend your disbelief. It wants you to drop it, pick it up again, understand why it’s there and what purpose it serves.
In a similar vein, Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” explores variations in the timeless tale of man meets woman. Options A through F allow you to have your pick of the story, which ending you prefer, while building upon one another or swapping characters in every new scenario to suit the reader’s tastes. Each section is a story in itself, run through briskly in summary, but the narrator is frank. It almost feels like getting directions in a grocery store. If you want x, go here. If you need y, go there. Just swap out x for happy ending and y for tragedy. The narrator asserts that the only true ending is that every character will die eventually and that endings are contrived, overly optimistic, overly sad, or meant to deceive.
These stories played a big role in my writing education. Understanding how important frameworks of fiction can be subverted and tested in such small spaces meant I had to understand what those key components of fiction were. Because of its brevity, flash fiction often draws from outside of itself. While a novel uses words to build worlds and people and their convictions into reality, flash fiction builds key images or ideas.
Thomas King’s short story “A Short History of Indians in Canada” (which I highly recommend you read) is composed almost entirely of dialogue, with little to no excess exposition or lingering description. The story is sparse and instead of relying on itself, it pulls a lot from outside of the text, and it asks more of the reader. I first read this story for class and was left picking apart every brief sentence, examining the use of allusion, and not only reading between the lines, but outside of them. This story taught me what can be done with brevity, the immenseness of ideas that could exist in compact spaces. Flash fiction can be more than just a story. If it’s possible to pursue big issues in the shortest of spaces, then it’s possible to pursue them anywhere in your writing. It can ask not only more from the reader, but from the world, too.
Instead of concerning itself only with what happens next, flash fiction is capable of pushing outwards in every direction. It poses questions, and feels free of the burden to provide answers for everything. As in real life, not all things can be easily solved, not everything is a happy ending.
I see the inspiration from these stories slipping into my writing often. When I write a story about the end of the world in the format of a questionnaire, I am pulling ideas about plot and fragmentation and format from the stories above. I’m working with brevity and testing the ways I can use structure to enhance a story, to build it up. The ways we experiment and subvert expectations when it comes to fiction is something I am still learning and exploring all the time. What do I want a story to leave behind? What impact will it have once it’s out in the world? Not only that, but what impact will it have on other writers? Fiction is a form that’s growing and changing every day, and when we pursue new ideas and new innovations in the way we tell stories, we’re taking part in that growth as well.
Joyce Chong is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominated poet and writer living in Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Throne Magazine, Liminality, Milkfist Magazine, and Outlook Springs, among others. You can find her at joycechong.ca or you can follow her on Twitter @_joycechong.