Letting the Small Magnify the Big: Symbols in Flash

When I mention flash fiction to non-writers, most have no idea what I’m talking about. “Flash? What’s that?” After I explain, their confusion turns to intrigue. “Wow! A whole story in a thousand words? By itself?”

These reactions have led me to believe two things: first, flash has something to offer, whether it be the convenience of a cab-ride-length story or an alternative to the all-too-familiar unfinished novel earmarked to hell. On the other hand, the lack of awareness among readers demonstrates that flash also has something to prove.

The brevity of flash requires the writer to get to the point. A thousand words is limiting and freeing – within the constraining word count, the writer is required to abandon larger-than-life plot lines and zero in on what counts most.

The question of what makes the story “matter” is perhaps best described as the “dramatic imperative,” defined in Randall Brown’s A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction as “the reason for a story’s existence, the why of its being, of this moment’s being chosen over all the others.”

Flash’s imperative is often created by the magnification of “small” things to represent bigger things. Put differently, specific scenes, conversations, items or events can be used to symbolize broader emotional truths. A pair of socks take on an entirely new meaning for a man facing adulthood in “How You Know You’re an Adult” by Steve Almond. In Jacqueline Kharouf’s “Buffalo,” it is a tiny buffalo adopted by the narrator as a pet.

With the help of Steve Almond, Randall Brown, and a few other writers, here’s a short list of tips to keep in mind when incorporating symbols:

1. Don’t try to hide them.

In “How You Know You’re an Adult,” Almond communicates symbolism as early as the title and first line. “Suddenly, socks don’t seem like a lousy gift at all…Suddenly, you see yourself in nice socks. You covet other men’s socks. With their socks, your life might come together more convincingly.”

Almond introduces the symbolism at the very beginning so that the reader is able to read the rest of the piece through that lens. This allows an organic development of that symbol and its possible interpretations.

2. Don’t try to control them.

In flash, there is often an overwhelming desire to leave the reader with a specific feeling or interpretation of a story. Resist the temptation! One of the best things to come out of writing workshops are the moments where readers find interpretations that, although not intended, are productive in understanding the story. Incorporate symbols that point to possible interpretations but also allow the story and its meanings to surprise you. To put it more specifically…

3. Distinguish between symbols and metaphors.

In Almond’s words, “metaphors almost always suck.” He says, “in my experience metaphors are the hallmark of an uncertain writer, one who wishes to call attention to himself at the expense of his story.” While a symbol can stand on its own merit or become enriched by various interpretations, a metaphor claims one thing is another and is thus more overt, direct, and in most cases, limiting. Take Almond’s example:

“Version 1: Robbins walked outside and saw his wife kissing the pool boy and his heart chopped like the hellish, blurring rotors of a bullet-strafed helicopter sent whirling into the abyss of his black, grief-pushing soul.

“Version 2: Robbins walked outside and saw his wife kissing the pool boy and his heart chopped.”

In the first example, the metaphor prescribes so much meaning that the experience itself loses its significance. The shortened version 2 imparts a similar meaning but without insisting upon a specific interpretation.

4. Use symbols to communicate desire.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster says, “‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.’” It is not enough for the symbol to represent a general event or occurrence, rather, it must allude to the emotional response of the character.

The human, emotional component is at the heart of every good story, and the symbol should first and foremost serve that end. In “Buffalo,” the narrator comes across a miniature buffalo. The man adopts the buffalo, but when he tries to bring him to a restaurant, the waitress refuses to seat them. “‘I called ahead,’ I told her. ‘You said it would be fine.’ She shook her head. ‘He belongs outside.’ I needed him, I told myself. He needed me, probably.”

The symbol of the buffalo doesn’t quite become clear until that last sentence, at which point it reveals the narrator’s emotional state. Whether the buffalo represents companionship, the narrator’s desire to be needed, or something else, the symbol helps to convey the character’s emotion without overstating it.

5. Keep it simple.

In another essay, Almond talks about something he calls “hysterical lyricism.” He points out a major issue in modern fiction, where the narrator becomes lost in meaning. “…The guide has been jettisoned. Instead we are plunged into a feverish stream of sensations and images and witty asides without any of those being located within a particular consciousness…”

To avoid this, the writer must employ only the symbols that clearly communicate the relatable desires of the character. Although Kharouf employs the absurd symbol of a tiny buffalo, the desire for companionship by the narrator is a simple one. Almond’s socks symbolize the transition to adulthood.

Symbols can be tricky, and the line between saying too little and too much is fine. However, by incorporating simple symbols that carry the emotional weight of the piece, flash has the potential to resonate with writers and non-writers alike.

Resources

Almond, Steve. This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey: Essays and Stories.

Brown, Randall. A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. Wynnewood, PA: Matter Press, 2012, Print.

Kharouf, Jacqueline. “Buffalo.” NANO Fiction 6.2 (2013): 44. Print.

Kara Cochran

About Kara Cochran

Kara Cochran is a poet, writer, teacher, and editor. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College, and a BA in Creative Writing and German Studies from Denison University. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Philadelphia Stories, Jr. and the former Managing Editor of Rathalla Review. She is a Fiction Southeast columnist and volunteers with Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia nonprofit dedicated to teaching children “to think and write with clarity.” She writes poetry, fiction, and articles about the craft of writing.