This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Melissa Scholes Young discusses why and how she teaches her students flash fiction as their first assignment. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Melissa Scholes Young
On the first day of class, my students are often cautious. They’ve heard I’m a hard teacher. Their friends have told them I’m fanatical about form and revision. Rumor has it I lecture too much about concrete details: “It’s never an apple! It’s a Gala or a Pink Lady or a Jonigold.” Others warn them to never have their characters strolling through cities without sensory details: “Cities smell. How do they smell? Put it on the page!” My first fiction assignment is an analysis and emulation of a flash form. When I share the instructions, my students begin to snicker. 500 words? 1,000 words? Seriously? Finally, an easy A, they think. That’s when the deception begins.
In “The Art of Microfiction,” a column by Gayle Towell published at LitReactor, she compares the brief fiction form to meals:
“Good stories come in all shapes and sizes—all lengths and forms. If a novel can be thought of as a ten course meal, and a short story as an excellent deli-sandwich. A microfiction piece might be an exquisite chocolate truffle. All are food. All are enjoyable. But they’re each very different. Microfiction is a scrumptious, bite-sized nugget of a story. It packs big flavor and satisfaction into a small package.”
Continuing with Towell’s lovely comparison, I teach flash fiction first because it is a manageable morsel all on its own and it is a digestible amount for sharpening writing skills. Depending on whether I’m teaching at the undergraduate or graduate level, I assign either Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction anthology or Rose Metal Press’ The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Marsh. With our guides in hand, we dig in to understand the stories first. Here’s the assignment:
Close Reading and Analysis
In less than 500 words, tell us how this story works. Do not waste space summarizing; we’ve read the story, too. Focus on how not what. Your liking/disliking of content or theme is not necessary. Do open with a one-sentence declaration that tells us the technique you’ll analyze and eventually emulate. Use specific text references to support and to expand your claim. Consider the structure carefully. Also, tell us how “complete” the story is and how the author accomplished (or didn’t) so much with so little.
To prepare them for the reading task, we discuss “Close Reading” by Francine Prose published in The Atlantic. It’s delightfully ironic that the essay is actually four times as long as their assignment, but we are developing skills to put flash under a microscope. It’s heavy lifting and we need to build our reading muscles.
After wallowing in how others write micro/flash well, we try out the techniques in our own work.
Writing a Flash Fiction Emulation
Using your analysis and micro/flash fiction choice, write a new story in less than 1000 words. It should be a complete story and the technique you are emulating should be obvious. For example, if you wrote your analysis about the use of dialogue, your emulation should rely heavily on dialogue and accomplish a similar result. The theme and content should not be the same as your micro fiction choice.
Inevitably, because my students are hard working and earnest, someone will raise their hand and ask the “rules” of flash fiction. They don’t like my answer that “rules” don’t matter nor do they find it satisfying when I insist that “rules” in art are meant to be challenged, so I give them a few rules I’ve adapted from “Stories in Your Pocket” by David Gaffney published in The Guardian.
- Start in the middle.
- Don’t use too many characters.
- Make sure the ending isn’t at the end.
After their close reading and emulation drafting, they present their analysis and we workshop their stories. In my experience, most of what needs accomplished in a workshop can be done in fifteen minutes. After fifteen minutes, someone usually brings up their grandma or starts rewriting the story for the author; neither are useful to the work. I limit their responses to three questions and require a specific text reference for each.
- What is this story about? What is the writer accomplishing?
- What is the central conflict? What are the character’s motivations?
- What does this story do well? What might this story need to do better?
Using these parameters, my students write “Dear Author” letters before class. In that way, they’ve focused their feedback in preparation and, like the flash form itself, we can accomplish more in the briefer workshop form.
What I hear most from my students during this assignment is a whining variation of “This is harder than it looks.” They’re right. Flash fiction does a lot more with less. Reading, examining, understanding, questioning, analyzing, and emulating flash is worthy and difficult to do well. You can’t hide anything from the reader in micro/flash forms. Your intention must be crisp. We can see your every move. As my students learn, deception is futile.
Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, and other literary journals. She was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri and still proudly claims it her hometown. She teaches now at American University in Washington, D.C. is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her debut novel, Flood, will be published by Center Street/Hachette in June 2017.