Thursday 12 April 2012

Too Much Flash, Not Enough Bang?

Flash fiction: it’s so hot right now, as Mugatu – Will Ferrell’s character in the comedy Zoolander – might say.

It’s not by accident I’ve started this post by paraphrasing a film that plunders the vacuous world of fashion for most of its jokes. Mugatu lures Ben Stiller’s character, male supermodel Derek Zoolander, into a trap by offering him the chance to model his latest collection, Derelicte – a range of clothes “inspired” by vagrants and street litter. I’m sure the costume designers had a lot of fun crafting bin bags, cardboard boxes and all sorts of other junk into the various bizarre outfits featured in the catwalk sequence. The whole thing’s a not-so-subtle reworking of The Emperor’s New Clothes – while the fashionistas are going crazy for the new designs, any sane person can see they’re a load of old rubbish.

Flash fiction is hot right now. We’re a month or so away from the UK’s first-ever National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD), there’s an ever-increasing interest in short-short stories from markets keen to capitalise on the alleged shortening of people’s attention spans, getting flash stories onto the phones and tablets of the world. Every time I look there’s another competition wanting stories of fewer than 1000 words, often even shorter than that. There even seem to be more opportunities to get super-short fiction into print, although that remains a tougher prospect than getting it online somewhere. All this is good. So why is so much flash fiction so … rubbish?

I know taste is subjective, and there’s no real way to set a standard for the quality of a piece of writing. Generally speaking, I like flash fiction. I don’t think I have a particularly short attention span, but I don’t get a lot of time to read, and having written flash fiction from time to time I understand and appreciate the challenges of the form. When it’s done well, it can be astonishingly good. But there is a lot that’s just plain awful. And a lot of it seems to be winning decent sums of money in competitions.

I’m not out to make enemies here, so I’m not going to single out any particular stories for criticism. And before there are any accusations of sour grapes, I’ll mention that what’s prompted me to write this post are the results of a competition I didn’t even enter (although there are plenty of occasions when I’ve been annoyed at losing out to what I’d consider Bad Flash). I’m trying to be as objective as I can.

So, what’s Bad Flash? For me, it’s something that fails at the most basic level – that of being a short story. I’m an unapologetic traditionalist. I like tales with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Flash doesn’t always provide enough room for all of these to be explicitly contained within the story itself, but there should be enough there for the reader to figure out what’s gone on before, what actually happens, and what’s likely to happen afterwards. It shouldn’t feel isolated, floating in space – a good flash story will be like an instant caught in a photograph. It should leave you in no doubt that the character(s) involved came from somewhere and that they will end up somewhere else. That sense of progression is important. I’ve said it before, and I’m yet to change my mind – a story should describe a test for a character, and the reader should be able to understand whether they pass or fail that test, even if the final outcome isn’t revealed before the end of the story.

Before we go any further, I'll say I'm not suggesting I've never written Bad Flash. I'm sure I have. I'm still learning and I'm not trying to fool anybody that I'm some kind of expert. But when I see stuff that has so few redeeming features being heralded as great writing, it annoys me, both as a reader and writer. Here's what I'm talking about:

Bad Flash #1: The One Where Nothing Happens
Flash fiction is short, right? So by the time you’ve described where everything is, and detailed all the thoughts of the characters involved, you’ve run out of word count – but, hey, it’s flash, so that’s okay, isn’t it? No. No, it isn’t. What you’ve done there is set up a scene. That’s not the same as telling a story. If your characters don’t move through your story (not necessarily the same as moving in physical space), if they don’t respond to some kind of stimulus, then all you’ve done is describe stasis. Static = boring. And I do not want to read boring flash (which sounds like an oxymoron. But it isn’t, sadly).

Bad Flash #2: The One that’s Mostly Flashback
The main character is about to do something. The narrative skips back to their childhood and explains why the thing they’re about to do makes sense. Then it skips forward again and the main character does the thing. The end. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this approach, but it doesn’t work with flash. It’s too short. The opening section is never interesting enough to make the reader care about the background, the middle bit seems forced or twee, and the ending is just an exercise in tying loose ends. Yawn, yawn, yawn.

Bad Flash #3: The One with the Big Idea
Don’t get me wrong; flash is a great arena for trying out big ideas, out-there concepts that would be hard to sustain in a longer piece. But all too often the initial concept seems to take up all the writer’s energy. Characters are wooden stereotypes. The story doesn’t go anywhere. The internal logic breaks down. The story fizzles out at the end or the author panics and wraps it up without taking it to any kind of logical conclusion. Ultimately, this kind of story can be hugely frustrating. If the idea appeals to a reader, they’re going to be annoyed when the writer gets all ham-fisted and messes it up or realises they’ve taken on more than they can handle and just chickens out.

Bad Flash #4: The One with the Surprise Ending
Again, a twist ending, done well, can be a good thing. It can stop you in your tracks or make you rush back to the beginning to read the story all over again. What doesn’t work is when the author seems to lose interest in what they’ve been telling you, and suddenly shoehorns something different in, just before the end. It’s jarring, and it makes you wonder why, when the actual story is supposed to be about that last bit, the author deliberately wasted your time with all the other stuff.

N.B. The other variation of this type of Bad Flash is the, “Surprise! The narrator was a ghost / cat / unborn baby all along!” ending, which, despite presenting a clear danger to public health, is yet to be criminalised.

Bad Flash #5: The Wilfully Obscure One
This one’s the prime example of Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Look, says the author, this story makes no sense whatsoever, or maybe it’s open to fifty different interpretations – I’m so avant-garde I haven’t decided yet. Principal variations of this type of Bad Flash are the Odd Character Behaves Oddly and the Normal Character Suddenly Behaves Oddly. There might be stilted, portentous dialogue, there’s usually a hint of some dark secret lurking in the past, but nothing’s actually explained. The reader’s not given any kind of insight into anything. The story, ultimately, means nothing. It’s not big and it’s not clever. It’s tedious. Stop it.

Bad Flash #6: The “Hilarious” One
I like a laugh. Seriously. And flash fiction can be funny. But it should never be a joke. The final sentence can be the pay-off, but if it’s the punchline then you’ve missed the point. If a story only exists to amuse, then it lacks credibility. The suspension of disbelief so vital for a story to work is undermined by that final line. And if you take away the believability, you don’t have a story, however funny you think it is (and to be honest I’m yet to read a joke-flash that raises much more than an irritated grimace-smile). Basically, if your story relies on a big reveal at the end that one of the characters is in fancy dress, or if you start off on a tale about Ancient Egyptians and your final line features the expression, “pyramid scheme”, then it’s the slow handclap for you, matey.

… and so on. There is good flash out there, but at the moment it’s in danger of being swamped by utter dross. The form as a whole risks gaining itself a bad name, ending up looking like a way for lazy or pretentious writers to get a story published and win cash prizes, offering little or nothing to the discerning reader.

I’m hoping activities like the NFFD help to bring wider attention to flash fiction and raise the bar for the kinds of stories hitting those top spots in competitions. I’d urge the organisers of those competitions to be choosy as to who judges them. A novelist used to writing, say, sprawling historical novels might not be the best person to pick the most accomplished examples of microfiction from a given selection. It’s hard to appreciate how difficult the form is, or how effective it can be, if you don’t read and write it yourself.

I’m sure if we work together, we can bring Bad Flash under control, and leave Good Flash to enjoy the bright future it deserves.


Amanda Saint said...

Great post, Dan. I hope the flash I'm writing would meet your 'good' criteria!

Chloe said...

Wow, I'm glad you don't critique my writing!

Good post though. I think most of your points hold true for short stories (and even novels) generally too - as you suggest. Twist in the Tale is hard to write and harder to get right. I once came second in a competition for twist stories and was a bit annoyed to find that the winner had written a very good short story but the ending wasn't a twist at all! It's the "genre" that people cheat on the most - a completely out of left field ending is not the same as a carefully constructed twist!

Thanks for this. I found it informative! I definitely don't consider myself a flash writer but my one of my favourite bits of writing ever was a very short flash
and the first thing I ever won was Txtlit.

I'm considering trying to get something on somewhere like Everyday Fiction soon - just for the challenge!

You may not be an expert but I've always liked your flash fiction. You first came to my atttention on Txtlit - can't get much more 'flashy' than that!

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks, Amanda! I'm sure your flash will be excellent.

I should probably have mentioned, having referred to NFFD in my post, that I'm halfway through reading Calum Kerr's anthology, "31", and - as he's the main man behind the event - I'm sure it's in safe hands.

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks, Chloe. That's a good example of what you're talking about - the twist fits well with the rest of the story. In fact, by the end it's kind of inevitable, but there's something pleasing about the way the author's laid the trail of breadcrumbs.

And thanks for the reminder about TxtLit - I really ought to try getting that hat-trick we talked about!

National Flash Fiction Day said...

Hi Dan,
I enjoyed your post, and agree with almost everything you say.
One of the things I'm trying to get over with NFFD is that it still needs to tell a story, and no, it's not a joke with a punchline.
I'm probably as guilty as anyone of writing flashes that fit into your categories, but at least I know they're not my best.
Thanks for the mention, and for sharing your thoughts (and for suggesting that 31 is an okay book!)
All the best

Dan Purdue said...

Hi Calum,

Thanks for visiting! I am genuinely enjoying 31, and I really hope this post isn't coming across as an attack on flash fiction, but a defence of it. I applaud what you're doing with NFFD and wish you every success.

This turned into an epic post and one thing I didn't have room for was to say that these aren't supposed to be "rules", just personal observations / bugbears. There are flash stories I love that slot straight into these categories, and it's due to the writers' skill that they defeat my prejudices. I've written plenty of short stories that fit into at least one of the above no-go areas, but occasionally there'll be something about them that just seems to work, and I end up very fond of them, even though I know I "shouldn't" be.

Taking an example from 31, I really like "Must See". It's arguably just a joke, although possibly not one you could tell very effectively down the pub. But it's skilfully done; it delivers the goods and doesn't overstay its welcome. It made me smile, which is never a bad thing. I wouldn't claim it's a great flash story, but it's a good bit of writing, and that's worth recognising too.

National Flash Fiction Day said...

Hi Dan,
No, I didn't think it was an attack at all. I think it's especially important when something is emerging, as flash-fiction is at the moment, to try to define what is best about it, and what, basically, sucks.

It is very easy to slip into bad habits and take the easy way out. Most of the categories you describe are the result of laziness, I think, especially the joke one. "Must See" is one that I like, but like you, I don't think it's a 'great' flash. I just think it's funny. And you're right, it gets away with it because it's so short.

Doing my daily flash-blog one of the things I've had to avoid is that moment when I go., 'He-he, that would be funny...' That's when I stop myself and go, 'Yes, all very good, but what's the story?'

That's when it works. And it can be funny and also touch on the human condition at the same time.

Anyway, all this is just a long way of saying, yes, I agree, don't worry that I misunderstood, and hello, pleased to meet you!

Teresa Stenson said...

Reading this I felt a bit like Chloe in the way of 'I'm glad you don't critique my writing!' then I remembered you do... and I am now afraid of you. (Not really.) (Okay, a bit.)

Joking aside (rofloflol) (Okay NOW I'll stop it with the brackets) this is a good post that serves as a reminder that there are standards - I like that you labelled this post with 'standards' and wonder if you'll write more posts that befit the label - in Flash writing, and it isn't easier because you only have several hundred words to play with.

I've definitely written Flash that falls into #1 and #5, and always always battle with the idea of 'story' - "is this a story or a scene?" in most of the stuff I write.

I don't think I can clearly define what I want, as a reader, from a Flash in the way you can, other than saying sometimes something just feels right, flows, impresses you in some way. I'm not sure.

Maybe the reason standards in Flash differ is that what people expect from Flash differs. I think it's often confused with 'a section of writing that reads well'. I think it's finding its feet as a genre. I think you're right in that competition organisers should select well.

Dan Purdue said...

Hi Tree,

It was arrogant of me to tag this with 'standards', wasn't it? Who am I to judge? In my defence I wasn't aiming to comment as a writer, but as a reader.

Perhaps another thing that isn't terribly clear from the original post is that I'm not saying that if a piece of (flash) fiction fits into one of the 'types' above it's automatically bad, but that when I read something and think, "What the hell was the judge/editor thinking?", the story will probably tick one or more of the above boxes.

My main concern is that a lot of flash fiction out there looks to the casual observer to be either a truncated version of a short story, or the literary equivalent of a telephone-pad doodle. It gives the impression that this stuff can just be knocked out, and I think that will ultimately undermine the form (I keep wanting to use the word genre, but that would be misleading too), as new writers will see it as a lazy fast-track to getting published.

Good flash, like good poetry, takes time and effort. One of my TxtLit stories literally took a whole day to write, and it's only 27 words long. I'm sure plenty of people wouldn't think it's 'all that', but I'd hope they could tell a decent amount of work had gone into it.