Four Techniques of Effective Flash Nonfiction Writers
Those moments in life that are wrought with emotion, intellectual growth, spiritual connection, and wisdom, they stay with us. They are the landmarks in our life path to which we return and ruminate as we try to connect-the-dots between who we were and who we are. Our narratives are littered with reflective phrases. It was then that I realized. Then it hit me. It had never occurred to me before. These moments are the substance of flash nonfiction. A flash piece is typically 500-2,000 words, but still achieves the personal discovery and present-time significance found in a full-length memoir or personal essay. Think of it as orange juice from concentrate. The consumer gets all the nutrition and sweetness in a regular carton of OJ, packed into a condensed space. Just as the juice goes through a concentration process, so too must the short form writer consider how he or she will process and package his or her story. Here are four techniques used by effective flash writers.
4. Begin in medias res
Short form does not allow room for lengthy, expository introductions. The reader is often thrown right into the middle of the action, and a skilled flash writer will fill in the back-story as he or she goes, and only as necessary. In her piece “First Bath,” Sonya Lea describes the first time she bathed her husband during his three-week hospital stay for intense cancer treatment. In the first paragraph she writes, “His shoulders hang low and his back is bowed. His body is forty pounds lighter than it was a few days ago, before the cancer surgery, before the blood loss that caused his mind to empty its memories. His is a body without strength, without vigor, without lust, without intention, without history. A body taken apart and reassembled….” Notice that she does not begin with statements such as when my husband was in the hospital, or I remember the first bath I gave him during his worst treatments. Instead, she skips to the image of his body right before she bathes him. Meanwhile, she slips in bits of pertinent back-story: blood and memory loss associated with cancer surgery. In three sentences, Lea has given the reader who, what, and why—lack of introduction without lack of information.
3. Run on the concrete
Concrete imagery is another way of saying sensory details. A reader can easily become bored or frustrated by banal statements such as, she was so beautiful. This statement has no real meaning because beautiful is an abstract idea that is different for every individual. A more tangible statement would be, I had never seen such warm brown eyes. Concrete images engage readers’ senses, which allows them to better imagine and/or connect with the memoir or essay. Furthermore, the amount of detail to given to these images is a key ingredient to determining the pace of flash piece.
Pacing refers to the speed at which the narrative reads, and is critical in short form. In “First Bath,” Lea does not merely set the scene, but places it on slide and examines it under a microscope. She writes, “I lift his arm onto my shoulder and I rub under as the silky soap makes a trail into the pit, dark curls slick with lather. Once I could lick there, swirling his hair in my tongue, breathing in his scent as if to memorize the salty musk. Now there is no odor, except of chemotherapy, the smell of ice on steel.” A slow pace brings the reader into the moment with the narrator, and allows the reader to experience it for his or herself. As a result, the reader makes his or her own discovery as to the significance of the moment, thus having a greater effect than simply being told, it was hard and sad to see my husband’s body so lifeless.
2. Objectify your emotions
Short form can prove especially challenging when addressing abstract ideas such as love, death, depression, success, or failure. Using objects to develop metaphors for emotional meaning is beneficial in a couple ways: it creates a tangible link to abstract feelings, and it provides enough distance from the writer that he or she doesn’t come across as whiny. Author Jill Christman expertly employs this technique in her essay “The Sloth.” She writes:
I thought I knew slow, but this guy, this guy was slow…I watched the sloth move in the shadows of the canopy. Still reaching. And then still reaching…This slow seemed impossible, not real, like a trick of my sad head…I thought, That sloth is as slow as grief.
Christman’s description of the sloth’s movement is an elegant metaphor for her experience with the grieving process. It allows her to share intense feelings without repetitive I-statements, thus making the piece more relatable for the reader. Moreover, she manages to put her own spin on a common theme while deftly avoiding clichés like healing takes time. To be human is to have emotional baggage, but objects, like hand trucks, are tools the flash writer can use to move and arrange that baggage into a work of art.
At the heart of the piece is that bit of aforementioned personal discovery and present-time significance. What happened becomes secondary to why it matters to the writer. However, this is not a conclusion paragraph or a moral-of-the-story section always found at the end. Instead, the flash writer will most likely weave his or her reflections into the what happened throughout the piece. Referring back to “First Bath,” Lea writes, “I soak the cloth in water again, and rinse him, warm droplets sliding down his forearms where I hope to wake something that wants to live….”
She expertly transitions from the physical situation to its emotional significance. This creates a seamless flow more natural to our thought process, and keeps the piece from sounding like a literary analysis essay (e.g., In conclusion, I learned X and Y about my life). Moreover, it encourages the reader to mull over, even reread the piece, to allow its full meaning(s) to sink in.
Altogether, these techniques give flash its robust flavor, often taking the reader by surprise that so much can be said in so few words.
Christman, Jill. (2008). “The Sloth.” Brevity, Issue 26. Retrieved from https://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/past%20issues/brev26hotcold/christman_sloth.html
Lea, Sonya. (2012). “First Bath.” Brevity, Issue 40. Retrieved from http://brevitymag.com/nonfiction/first-bath/
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