Hint: Teaching How to Read and Write off the Page

Let us begin with this: flash fiction is an excellent genre for the writer and reader. For the writer, flash provides unique techniques, opportunities for bursts of inspiration, varied markets, new methods of reading aloud their work, inventive varieties of form, a fresh way to think about words, lack of words, compression, space.

Flash also benefits the reader of fiction. When I begin a public reading I tell a little joke; it isn’t really a joke at all (the best jokes are serious). I say, “Look, I’m about to read some flash fiction. The great thing is if you don’t like what I’m reading, just wait a minute. I’ll read something else.” Flash gives the reader a chance to change, to look over here, over there, then waaaayyyyy over here…The genre leaps. It glitters and gleams.

But it offers the teacher of creative writing even more.

Flash is a practical tool. That text will be read, right there in class, out loud if need be. The first draft can be written in class. As for showing artistry and conventions of fiction writing, the sheer variety of flash makes it a precise instrument for teaching individual techniques. Need to focus on description? Rising action? Characterization? Setting? Scene and summary? Dialogue? Narrative and/or lyricism? Point of View? Methods of realism, minimalism, conceptualism, magical realism, surrealism, etc. There’s a flash for that.

Here’s one lesson, critical to the genre: writing off the page. All of the glorious white space that surrounds a flash—all that isn’t shown, paradoxically leading to an even further telling. The reader has to meet the writer, to shake hands and bang foreheads. To create together. How do we explore this in the classroom? Any number of ways, but here’s one: Six famous words. Followed by Hint Fiction examples. Group work. And then naturally a writing assignment.

Let’s begin with Hemingway. As a flash advocate (and I’m sure you are), you should educate your class on this author’s relationship to flash fiction. Not only did Hemingway later use flash as transitions between longer stories, but also published his first book (basically a chapbook), In our Time, as a flash (published in Paris and called vignettes) collection.

But let’s focus on Hemingway’s famous (and famously apocryphal) six word fiction.

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Since we don’t really have a title here, ask your class (or writing group) to place the words in a potential context (a classified ad, most likely). Context gives meaning: a concept important to any minimalist form. Once the reader has some sense of context, he or she can now meet the writer half way. The class will talk, filling in, fleshing out, reaching several conclusions (the best off-the-page work never reductively reaches a singular idea). The reader is active. The flash is alive. Now move to Hint Fiction. Hinting to something more complex. Put your class into three groups and give each group a Hint Fiction. Have each group read and discuss the text as a team. Then each group discusses the hint with the entire class. Have them read the Hint Fiction out loud. Second, have them discuss what they believe exists off the page. Finally, and most importantly, have them show techniques that allowed for this connotative reading.

For an exploration of Hint Fiction, see Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer, edited by Robert Swartwood.

These examples, from the anthology:

“Children” by Jake Thomas

He took her out to a picnic to discuss what they wanted to do about it. “You want Bud Light or O’Doul’s?” he asked her.

This Hint Fiction will engage a lively classroom discussion. Students will have no trouble pondering off the page; they will arrive at several different conclusions (as they should). One or two of them will even point out this text as homage to Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants.” As an instructor, lead the students away from “What happened?” Flash fiction isn’t some clever puzzle to solve. Lead the students to the techniques that allowed us to read off the page: title (always essential in a flash; we only have so many words), “He” as the only active character, and then the wonderfully effective use of objects, two beverages, one alcoholic, and one critically not.

Technique, technique, technique. Remember, we’re teaching the nuts and bolts. As instructors, we need to peel away “the fictional dream,” and show the wiring, the plumbing. We’re not interested in the aesthetical architecture of the story—but rather how to build the thing ourselves, from floor to ceiling. To wit: We’re not reading as readers. We are reading as writers.

Next let’s examine “Visiting Hours” by Katrina Robinson.

She placed her hand over his and pressed the pen to paper. The signature looked shaky,but it should be enough.

Again, discuss. Again, prod the discussion in the direction of technique. Here, the title works to provide necessary context (among others things—a good title should be multifunctional). Note the careful sentence construction: how her hand presses the pen, not his. Watch the word choice, its connotations. Shaky signature indeed.

And one more, “Through Tiny Windows” by Barry Napier.

When they opened the cadaver, they found a house. A couple argued inside. There was a rhythm to their words, like the beating of a heart.

Everything a poet does, the flash writer needs to observe. And steal. Metaphor, for example. Conceptualism: taking an abstract idea and giving it concrete form. Figurative language does many, many things in flash fiction, but you must emphasize to beginning writers it does one thing very significant—it lets you use fewer words! Technique, always technique. Cadaver, not dead body. Objective tone when writing about a universal. And so on…

This lesson ends with homework: write an effective Hint Fiction. I would also make them write a short reflection on their Hint Fiction. What techniques did they use to allow us—the reader—to become active?

1. This lesson is an excellent one to transition into a lesson of minimalist flash fiction, those writers who often ask the reader to meet them halfway. Anton Chekhov, Diane Williams, Kim Chinquee, and so on.

2. Once this lesson is complete, you have something to note about every flash fiction in the future. Sure, you’ll discuss language, structure, theme, all varieties of creative writing perspectives on every flash example, but now you have something new to ask: “Can we read this flash off the page?” And if so, what techniques did the writer use to create such magic? What your students will find is that most flash fiction does allow for connotative depth. That’s the beauty of using fewer words for greater impact. That’s the brilliance, the precise artistry, and one reason we know it as flash.

Sean Lovelace lives in Indiana, where he eats nachos and plays disc golf and teaches creative writing at Ball State University. He blogs at seanlovelace.com. His next book will be about Velveeta. He likes to run, far.