“There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” ~Leonard Cohen
I touched on the segmented/fragmented form briefly in my last newsletter. I’d like to go into more detail here, sharing some wisdom from a couple of masters of the form. I’ve also included some recommended reading and, as always, there’s a fun prompt for you to try toward the goal of creating your own fragmented story.
If you’re not familiar with this form it may help to skip ahead to the recommended pieces I have linked below to see what they look like and how they read.
Unlike the breathless one paragraph, the mosaic or fragmented form makes use of white space. This is where the light gets in. Where subtext germinates. There are jumps in time, sometimes changes in point of view. It's a story told in pieces that somehow form a cohesive whole. Imagine a series of fragments or pieces that are loosely connected by theme, character, image, story, etc. (Consider how filmmakers make use of jump cuts to deftly and artfully advance the storytelling in movies.)
But why write a story in fragments? What does it achieve?
All flash invites collaboration with the reader, but the segmented form especially so. The human brain unconsciously processes about 11 million pieces of information per second. So in that tiny pause between fragments a lot is happening inside your reader’s head. The brain is momentarily freed up to react, insinuate, infer, connect, gather, intuit, deduce, ponder, and, importantly: feel.
By its use of white space and the elimination of bridges and transitions, fragmenting is a means of practicing concision up front, something I am a proponent of, and talked about in my March newsletter.
The form mimics the way the brain processes memories—especially memories of a strongly emotional nature—thus giving the reader an authentic experience of a narrator pondering past events.
Segmented structure lends itself well to telling stories that cover an expanse of time and/or geography in a small space.
Imagine your story is a vase that, in a fit of pique, you smash against a wall. Full of regret and wanting your story back, you begin to carefully pick up the scattered shards, but you’re only allowed to choose three or five or eight of them. You choose the ones with the most verve or potency or significance, or emotional charge, right? Of course you do! And you discover there’s lots you can leave on the floor.
In terms of texture, the fragmented form has a flickering, Polaroid quality. The form is well-suited to flash memoir or personal essays. No one moment is deeply or densely rendered. The writing must make its mark quickly before moving on to the next section or segment. The fragments work in conversation with each other. Meaning is created via patterning and juxtaposition.
Australian writer Melissa Goode is a true master of flash fiction. I asked her to share a bit about her process with this form (see two examples of her work linked below):
“I first learnt how to write segmented flash from Kathy Fish through her Fast Flash course back in early 2017. Since then, it has become my favourite to write, because to me it best reflects the way we remember our lives, these fragments…I write into a segmented flash with pen and paper. They are scraps and pieces, disjointed, uneasy. Bits of dreams, memories and imaginings. Sometimes they are fed by looking at artwork online, reading poetry, or research. Once I have momentum and have made the best of it, I look back at the pieces and circle those that could sit close and feed each other. I type those pieces, move them about and it is magic when they cohere. If I can sense blanks, I leave placeholders and write the missing pieces, either about the interplay of characters, or informed by more research and thinking about music, artwork, aspects of place. To me, each piece has to be distinct and pulse all by itself, but also be energetic and propel the reader from one piece to the next until it builds and culminates into a whole that shines and is alive.”
Another writer who makes brilliant use of fragmentation is Scott Garson (see two examples of his work below). He had this to say of the form:
“I’ve been thinking about series of shorts, the hows and whys of them—maybe because I don’t have great answers, or because my answers are liable to change. The central Q is probably whether or not a series of fictions is really just one larger fiction. And for me the answer has been yes and no. No in the sense that individual stories within a series can vary quite a bit—and sometimes editors will pick and choose, which never bothers me. But yes in the sense that the stories seem to me to belong together, or to benefit, as a reading experience, from their community and sequencing. Often I draft the individual stories in a series around the same time, sometimes even on the same day. So—like when I reread the “Five Fictions” from New World Writing, I feel like they’ve come from the same one place, wherever that was.”
This exercise was roughly my process for writing “A Room with Many Small Beds.” A few participants in my workshop have used this exercise as a springboard for their (now published!) novellas-in-flash:
Quickly jot down THREE dreams that you've had in your lifetime. (3-5 sentences maximum for each) Often the most vivid dream memories are from our childhood nightmares. Just sketch them down. Get the images on paper. It can be fun to write the dreams as if they really happened. The result will be something deliciously weird.
NOTE: If you are a person who does not recall any dreams, or you've taken Fast Flash before you can either make some dreams up (this surreality perhaps or nightmare) OR alternatively, describe old photographs. This will give your story a different feel, but you will still end up with a mosaic piece.
2. Now, just as quickly, jot down THREE instances from your real life. These can range from the extraordinary to the mundane. Or just a sense memory or visual that has stayed with you, even if you don’t completely understand it or the context of it. Doesn’t matter. And again, just get the ideas down. (3-5 sentences maximum for each)
3. Now intersperse these on the page. One dream, one reality, one dream, one reality, etc. Go for language, image, color, subtext. Go for feeling. The individual sections ought to be fairly brief. This is flash after all. Get in and get out, move on to the next. Do not worry about "making sense." Just allow what comes.
See what happens when you create cracks in the writing for the light to shine through.
As you do this, you may begin to see actual connections forming. Themes may emerge, but don’t force them. Do whatever you like with this exercise. If you find yourself veering wildly from the initial directions, no worries! “Whatever gets you to the page” is my teacherly mantra.
Tips: Echoes go a long way in giving this sort of story a sense of cohesion, so find one or two elements or images that you can repeat here and there. Writing all your sections in present tense, no matter where they’re situated in time, can lend an interesting immediacy to your piece. Also, find a way to separate the sections. You may number them or simply separate them with # as Melissa Goode does. It's also fun to give your sections their own titles, as Scott Garson does in his segmented stories.
Always, always, always: Trust the exercise and allow what comes. There is no wrong way to do this exercise. I’d love for you to share your experience with this prompt, or any of your thoughts on this form, in the comments section.
“We’re All Just Trying to Keep Our Shit Together at the DMV” by L Mari Harris in Craft Literary (from the preface: “Harris compares writing the fragmented flash to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle: “Life rarely makes sense from separate moments across a lifespan, but these moments have a Jungian synchronicity.” Each fragment, each memory, layers against the next, constructing a complex narrative that feels expansive despite its brevity.”)
“Nine Fictions” by Scott Garson in Electric Literature
“Five Fictions” by Scott Garson in New World Writing
“Lux Aeterna” by Melissa Goode in Jellyfish Review
“Clef” by Melissa Goode in Gulf Stream Magazine
Thanks for reading and subscribing! I’m enjoying this journey, writing these monthly newsletters and drafting “The Art of Flash Fiction.” It’s encouraging to know that now nearly 3,000 of you are out there, reading my craft articles, trying my prompts, and supporting what I do. See you next month!