Chilly Scenes of Flash Fiction: Rendering Quiet Power
Photo by Daniel Mirlea on Unsplash
“Remember the night out on the lawn, knee deep in snow, chins pointed at the sky as the wind whirled down all that whiteness? It seemed that the world had been turned upside down, and we were looking into an enormous field of Queen Anne's lace. Later, headlights off, our car was the first to ride through the newly fallen snow.” ~from “Snow” by Ann Beattie
November is a month I used to hate but have come to appreciate. The trees are bare. October’s fiery colors have been shed. Everything feels muted. Perhaps the first snow has fallen. I find myself going inward this time of year. Starkly beautiful and melancholy, November is the month I write more than any other. Maybe it’s the same for you. It’s as if we’re given permission to stay at our desks, stare out the window, go dark and deep.
Those who don’t know how complex, layered, and subtle it can be think of flash fiction as, well, flashy. Yes, it can be explosive, dramatic, shocking. Its emotion can literally make us gasp. Or sob. Or bring us to anger. But it can also be much more nuanced. Some of the most beautiful, resonant flash I’ve read renders its emotion quietly. I’m in awe of writers who make a strong impact without fireworks.
Kim Addonizio, in her craft book, Ordinary Genius, speaks to the value of handling strong emotions in poetry by intentionally writing it colder. In the chapter “white heat, necessary coldness,” she quotes Chekhov: “When you want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder—that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly.”
In Ann Beattie’s novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter moments of love and yearning are quietly, wistfully rendered, but the impact is strong. (It’s also quite funny sometimes, which I love.)
What can we achieve in flash fiction when we trust our readers to “get” the significance of more muted scenes? When we pare away language that manipulates (emotionally-laden diction and heavy-handed descriptives) and build our scenes from ordinary objects and details instead? What happens when we trust ourselves, at least now and then, to write colder?
Read below the small block of description from the chapter, “Thanksgiving Day” in Susan Minot’s novel, Monkeys. You’d have to read the whole chapter/story to see how effectively this stops time and the forward progression of the story, yet is absolutely integral to its overall tone and emotional impact. But see how the details immerse us in the moment:
“Everyone at the table used loud voices—family behavior. When Sophie went out to go to the bathroom, she stood in the hall for a moment between the Chinese portraits and listened to the clatter behind her, the hollow echo from the high ceilings, Aunt Fran’s hooting, the knives clicking on the china, her mother’s voice saying something quietly to the little table. Sophie could tell Uncle Charles from his whine, and her grandmother was the slow voice enunciating each word the way old people do because they’re tired of talking. Sophie went up close to study one Indian picture—you could see the tongue of the snake and the man’s pink fingernails and even the horse’s white eyelashes. Ma said they used one cat hair at a time to paint it. In the bathroom was the same brown soap shaped like an owl. The towels she used were so stiff it was like drying your hands with paper.”
A Quiet Scene
In my workshops, I urge writers to go ahead and try the hard thing. There’s value in working against your proclivities. You’ll be a better writer for it. Even if quiet, minimalist storytelling isn’t your thing, it’s good practice to see what you can paint with a muted palette. This month’s prompt challenges you to create a scene of quiet power and emotional resonance, embracing stillness, yearning, and melancholy.
* Drawing inspiration from Susan Minot’s paragraph above and the stories linked below, build your scene from specific objects and sensory detail.
* Use gesture, facial expressions, and action that subtly convey an underlying tension or longing.
* In dialogue, have your characters deflect or talk around the key issue.
* Consider that what you have your character focus on in the moment can convey underlying concerns or something they’re trying hard to avoid dealing with.
* Close out your scene by taking a leap away from it using a time marker (“later, she would…” “after that…” ). This leap can be to an imagined future.
* Set this draft aside and return to it in one week. Now "Re-Vision” it!
“Eulogy” by Dina L. Relles in Passages North
“The Diner” by Dina L. Relles in Matchbook
“The Hand that Wields the Priest” by Emily Devane (a story I chose as winner of the Bath Flash Fiction Award, 2017)
“We Know the World with Our Bodies” by Di Jayawickrema in Unbroken Journal
“The During (or 12 hours, 40 minutes)” by Molia Dumbleton in Monkeybicycle
“The Sky is a Well” by Claudia Smith Chen in Smokelong Quarterly
“As Through a Sieve” by Jad Josey in CutBank
My story, “Today When I Asked You About a Couple We Knew in Canberra” in Washington Square Review
“Snow” by Ann Beattie
The White Book by Han Kang
Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within by Kim Addonizio
Wintering: the power of rest and retreat in difficult times by Katherine May
BEFORE YOU GO…
Another wonderful Flash Fiction Festival day is set for Saturday, November 27th! There are lots of great sessions and workshops and a cool “throw down” writing challenge and contest! Sign up HERE. This is the description of my 90 minute workshop available ONLY via the festival. I’d love to have you join me!
Hybridity: Embracing the Literary Mash-Up –What if we cast aside our notions of what flash is and is not? What if we embrace other forms and genres in the limited space we’re given? We’ll be reading inspiring examples of true literary hybrids: flash memoir, flash essays and prose poetry. The second half of this session will be all about artistic play and experimentation and blurring lines. Expect to surprise yourself!
Thanks so much, as always, for being here, for reading these monthly missives and trying the exercises. I am having such a great time drafting (and revising!) my craft book, The Art of Flash Fiction, and can’t wait to put it out into the world.
Stay warm, friends!
Really helpful! I'm going to try the prompt this evening
Thanks for this advice and these wonderful examples!