“Time to Turn Your Flash to the Dark Side”

“Narrative,” writes Peter Abbott in The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, “is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of [hu]mankind and there nowhere is nor has been a people without narrative. All classes, all human groups, have their narratives, enjoyment of which is very often shared by [people] with different, even opposing, cultural backgrounds. Caring nothing for the division of good and bad literature, narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.” Narrative, it would seem, is the way we have made, currently make, and will make sense of time, the way we impose order upon events, so much so that we cannot make meaning of these events without first creating a narrative. Thus, narrative might be seen as an Apollonian impulse, imposing reason, order, and structure upon our lives. And so much of writing instruction (perhaps) focuses on the Apollonian, the ordering principle, the impulse to give direction, purpose, meaning, and design: the physical senses and rationality. Part of that structuring dynamic requires the harnessing of the Dionysian, what might be seen as that imaginative realm out of which the story first emerged, that burst of passion, appetite, fear, delight, desire, instinct, and emotion.

Maybe—after the editing, workshopping, re-editing, feedback, re-reading, re-drafting—the Dionysian has been successfully erased from the narrative. The imposition of cause-effect, point-of-view, links, narration, character desire, setting, the right words, the patterned images, rising action, continuity, a narrative thread, closure and resolution has created a final manuscript that satisfies our need for order, for “knowing.” Nowhere to be found in this final document is the Dionysian, that primal element, that “something” that every word in our language attempts to find but cannot. It is that something out of reach, that world on the tip of our tongues and fingers. If only…

So, here, I suggest that maybe what your “final” version needs is a bit of the Dionysian, a sprinkling of madness, an echo of a primal scream. The Dionysian—as I see it—privileges unknowing, excess, the frantic. Flash fiction writing advice so often focuses on moderation—on cutting out needless words, creating this myth of a world where every word matters, where the writer exerts complete control over every choice. If that is the “way” to write flash, then your first Dionysian act is to rebel against the confines of such a world by finding in the confined space of flash and its word count something expansive, out-of-control.

Yes, I know. Enough with the abstractions. How about some examples? Okey-dokey. Your wish is my command. Again, I’m not taking about razing your flash to the ground; I’m suggesting a dash of Dionysian here and there.

 

Music. Put on the album Disintegration by The Cure. Songs about happiness murmured in dreams / When we both of us knew how the ending would be.

 

Titles. Often, the title represents what the story is; for example, “The Food Store” or “The Break-Up.” Instead, go deeper. Get the title to name what isn’t named in the story, the subtext bubbling beneath the surface. Make the title something that un-orders the story. I’m currently working on a flash piece in which a guy working in the mall’s gift-wrap kiosk gets handed a present to wrap from his –ex. “Wrapping It Up” was the working title, because that seemed exactly what he was doing, finding a way to get closure on this relationship. But beneath the surface, he was coming apart, being rearranged. Borrowing from my musical inspiration, I changed the title to “Disintegration,” an aspect of the story most readers I think would miss if it were not for the title.

 

Dialogue. In his essay “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise” from Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing, Douglas Glover describes not-answering dialogue techniques, including “talking at cross-purposes.” For example, in that aforementioned flash, here the guy in the wrapping kiosk gets handed the present:

“What paper do you want?” I ask. Every finger has paper cuts, and they all sting.

“Do you need money?” she asks.

“Snowflakes it is,” I say and begin to measure out the paper.

That resistance to “answering” adds an element of surprise and uncertainty to the dialogue. Another technique I like to do with dialogue is to add something in-between a character’s dialogue. For example, in my story-in-progress, the gift-wrapping guy slipped a I love you note into the present, but the present was part of a work Secret Santa, so his –ex brings the co-worker back to the kiosk to prove she didn’t write the note. Here’s the dialogue when she appears at the kiosk: “Show him.” [Fill.] “Write it.” So what might go in that [Fill]?

In What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, Pam Painter and Anne Bernays list several sentences that can be inserted into a story, including these (pronouns of course might have to be changed):

  • The last few nights she had a recurring dream about [?].
  • She made a list: [?]. To do, or [?].
  • The last time he had worn this [?] was when [?].

So maybe there is this:

“Show me.” The last few nights he had a recurring dream about her return, the note taped to her forehead, as if the words were a line from a play he couldn’t remember. “Write it.”

The insert adds an element of the subconscious, of a kind of mystic, supernatural element.

 

Openings. Begin, they say, in medias res, in the middle of things. That advice maybe has something to do with privileging showing over telling, or with the inattention of readers, or with the death of an author. But the Dionysian force cackles (drunkenly) at such rules. Instead, try mixing exposition (telling) with scene (showing) as an opening.

Original Opening

I look up from the behind the counter of the mall gift-wrapping kiosk, and it’s my –ex, handing me a present. A Diesel wallet.

“Really?” she says, finally noticing me. It’s too late for her to take the present back.

Revised Showing & Telling

This is how the end is—left with the feeling that there were words that could’ve prevented it and there they hang like grapes, tantalizingly near. The tip of my tongue tingles. They come to me in dreams, but evaporate before comprehension. It’s Easter, Arbor Day, Halloween, December. And then there you are.

Standing at my mall kiosk, holding a present for me to wrap. A Diesel wallet.

 

Epiphanies. There is the aha! moment that brings order to what has been previously chaos. But there is also the aha moment that plunges a character/reader into chaos, as in the ending of James Joyce’s “Araby” (spoiler alert!): “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Or the end of Updike’s “A&P”: “His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” Here the acquisition of knowledge leads to a loss of innocence—leading to darkness, falling, burning, hardness. It ends more in the Dionysian realm than in the Apollonian one.

There are, of course, plenty of other ways to add some Dionysian disorder to your Apollonian-ed final draft, and part of the fun is to find those ways to unrestrain your flash from Apollo’s hold upon it.

Randall Brown

About Randall Brown

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and teaches at the MFA in Creative Program at Rosemont College.



  • ∀NNE ELIZ∀BETH

    I always did like a little dash of the Dionysian! Those “what if” fillers are also clutch. Thanks, Randall for a great essay.

  • Randall Brown

    Thanks for reading, ∀NNE! Glad you found it helpful.

  • ∀NNE ELIZ∀BETH

    I think I’ll try a little dash of Dionysian in my next Manhattan, too! But seriously, this was a great lesson and you are an awesome teacher. : )

  • Randall Brown

    Thanks! Yes, the Dionysian can make any drink dirty.