Technique # 1: Density.
Roxane Gay is an acquaintance of mine, as you may know (though I cannot imagine why you would), and once, over tiny plates of nachos (unfortunately soggy, a fatal wound for nachos and easily avoidable with correct chip choice and attention to layering) and bottles of tepid water in a rundown Indianapolis art museum (we were attending a reading by Andy Devine, an author who is basically a ghost [long story]), she said to me, “Density is when one word means several words. It is important.”
Strike, for example, she continued. Venomous snake, march or protest, hitting all the bowling pins, missing all of the baseball pitches, personal beauty, the hiss and acidic curling smoke of a freshly scratched match—not to mention… (this went on for a while, as people vaguely circled Roxane, perhaps hoping for an autograph or a word about locating an agent or even more likely to cram a rough manuscript into her hands like some wretched and stinking roadkill they’d snuck into the event beneath their hipster jackets…)
Density is likewise an apt word for the effective opening of a flash fiction. A beginning must do at least three things. For example, I once knew (knew might be the wrong word) a young woman who lifted small barbells in the shower while simultaneously dictating emails to her phone she had balanced against a potted cactus atop the toilet—We need a flash opening to be like that: three things, minimum.
Avra Margariti understands.
1. Funerals and omens: two words that connote upcoming tension. Types of phrases that encourage a reader to matriculate through the text. Danger, mystery or mystical, unknowing, potential terror; an action scene written immediate and close up (grandmother with flyswatter: “The slap of flesh echoes.”)—these are all examples of artistry to increase conflict. Dear fellow writers (the hopeful and the doomed, if I may), one task more urgent than any other: to get the reader to continue!
2. Fable-like beginnings. An elderly woman, nature, buzzing flies. Moons, fog, some sort of spiritual undertow, someone somewhere drowning (or were they waving?), we must assume. Whether Phaedrus, Grimm, Luis Antonio Sensini, or “The Armless Maiden” (a French tale stolen from the Russians [long story]), these elements introduced by Margariti are archetypes, not only of ours souls (if you’ll allow the hyperbole) but also of the actual (and ancient) history of the flash fiction genre.
3. Sounds and Feel. Many authors are sight-centric. This opening isn’t. Thus vividness emerges, salty and humid on a night wind, secret and unrepeatable.
Technique # 2: Symmetry.
Strange that so many authors do not comprehend the impeccable balance a fully realized flash fiction requires. Look at your ceilings, the walls, the window placements (go ahead, right now, look), the very frames and panes within the windows, and so on and so on…architectural symmetry. But why? Now that’s a sociological essay and a biological essay and possibly an essay involving Arnold Schwarzenegger (former bodybuilder, a sport that values proportionality of muscle and flesh), the Higgs boson particle, the inseam of letter jackets, the temperature regulation of casinos, the efficiency of bird migration formations, and even how you brushed your teeth this morning…And I am not writing that essay, not today. (I actually need to bundle up and walk the dogs and cook a quick meal [maybe a venison loin with a peach and brown sugar sautéed in a skillet] and then quietly drink a nonalcoholic beer while looking out the window into an icy maw of sleet.) But the structural symmetry of a particular flash fiction is critical. Without an aspect of equilibrium, we may feel a slight vertigo, a feeling of offness, as if gripped by tinnitus or the blue thoughts that stir within anyone’s head around four a.m. when jolted awake. Then we (the reader) will not continue (a mortal sin for a writer, as I intimated earlier). Conversely, a symmetrical text may induce pleasurable feelings of fictional dreaming, even if we have no conscious concept of how (not so unlike ASMR or how hugging a rat terrier makes life worthwhile).
Margariti opens with insects: “Grandma has a grudge against the flies.”
Has the insects return at around the 50% fulcrum point: “If we leave the bowl of koliva unattended, flies swarm it.” (Note: I also had to look up, koliva: it is a light dessert soup of cranberries, wheat berries, pine nuts, cinnamon, powdered sugar, Velveeta, and often almond flour that’s used liturgically in the Eastern Orthodox Church for commemorations of the dead.)
And concludes with, “She made me feel like a chrysalis on the verge of opening up.”
This is a scaffolding technique (often used by minimalists like Raymond Carver and Kim Chinquee) called Threading, possibly another essay altogether (if this magazine even allows me another essay; we shall hope), but try to envision the simple yet complex braiding of a traditional Aran Islands-style sweater, à la Knives Out.
Margariti’s secondary symmetrical flourish is delivered in binary scenes, a hurried kissing session with a boy (“My mouth still feels the weight of his tongue. Thick and fat like the August flies.”) and further on, another kissing session (“A couple of summers later, Grandma catches me again, this time with a girl.”) These scenes act as fundamental lever, beams, two pans at the ends of the beams to hold the materials (lust and existential need in the blank stare of mortality) to be weighed, and counter-balancing weights, in this case, most likely purposefully onomatopoetic (or at least acoustic-phonetic) in an imitation of intimate whispering (or even the rush of the nearby sea?), but this reader does not presume to state the exact intent of the author.
Dear fellow short form writers, life is hard (as we know well). And yet, so much beauty exists folded within those daily agonies. This is of course our calling as writers (and isn’t the genre oft compared to diamonds or splendid moths?), to illuminate! But without craft, we have nothing. There is no effect. No distribution. No reality, because the audience has looked away to binge on Netflix or at least a bowl of potato chips…
So, onward density!
These are powerful skills of dexterity and deftness for the flash fiction author/advocate to practice, repeat, edit for, and, yes, greatly admire. We thank you for this very moment, Avra Margariti.
Sean Lovelace is the author of Fog Gorgeous Fog and several award-winning chapbooks. His primarily scholarly focus is flash and hybrid fiction forms and service/community learning. He has won the Crazyhorse prize for fiction, the Rose Metal Short-Short Fiction Contest, and the Bateau Press Keel Award for Flash Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in many journals, magazines, and anthologies.