A Flash Fiction Model

When I teach flash fiction I like to guide my students by using great stories already written as models. I do this through a series of exercises where I have the students look closely at a single flash’s structure and form and then replicate it. For example, students first read Dan Kaplan’s story “Bill” from the anthology Flash Fiction Forward.

The story is 26 sentence fragments long. In 23 of those sentences the name “Bill” is used. I ask them how Kaplan’s chosen cadence and word choice help build the world of Bill for us. We discuss how/why sentence fragments instead of full sentences work in this story. We talk about traditional char- acter development versus this nontraditional take. It’s exciting.

Here is the challenge I give them:

Follow Kaplan’s lead. Write a short-short story about a character of your choice that has 26 sentences/sentence fragments. Twenty-three of them should have your character’s name in them in some way (this can be widely interpreted). You get three without.

Please pay attention to the rhythm of Kaplan’s piece. It’s best to read it out loud. It’s one of the keys to its coherence—the sentences are not monotonous; they relate to each other in both obscure and direct ways. Think about how he achieves this. We see Bill rise up from the sentences as a whole instead of being formed diligently via a linear plot. We get a sense of “Billness” as it were.

I like this exercise because it gives the students structure from the get-go. Their stories will be 26 sentences long. It helps them practice the length of a piece of flash, and it helps them break away from a more traditionally plotted story at the same time. I think students feel a sense of safety starting out with these rules, and I’ve had many write great pieces using names that have a double meaning. Bob, for instance—a name and a verb—can cleverly satisfy the assignment.

I think so much of learning flash is practicing the length, replicating how some other authors have achieved success with the form, and then—in revision—moving away from that modeling. Taking off the training wheels.

Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (Bison Books) and the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting(Flume). She lives in Pittsburgh.