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Smart Surprises in Flash Fiction

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field. Edited by Tara L. Masih

I'm progressing through my "field guide" slowly over the summer, taking time to digest each essay with its writing exercises. I think of it like poetry. I could've read through this entire book in a day, but in order to let it soak in, I'm savoring every word, paragraph, and essay and using the experience to guide, inspire, and give the the kick in the pants I need to continue flexing my writing brain over the summer.

Here are some recent tips and thoughts about "smart surprise" that I found especially fruitful from Jennifer Pieroni.

In the section titled "Beginnings and Endings," Jennifer Pieroni, founder and editor of Quick Fiction, emphasizes the “smart surprise” throughout flash fiction—not just as a punch line at the end. The two vehicles for smart surprise are language and image.

“Examples of using language to create smart surprise could include: odd words; uncommon word parings or de-packaging common phrases; invented words; and conscious crafting of the rhythm of words when brought together into a sentence.”

“Just one strong, central image can make the difference between a story being forgettable and being one that stays with the reader forever...Memorable images are natural elements of a scene that are developed to shock readers out of a routine feeling, mood, or expectation.” Pieroni quotes Sam Ruddick, “We seek to be surprised, not by a trick ending, but by the feeling we get from reading the piece.”

Some phrases in the story sample ("Mine," by Szilvia Molnar, from Quick Fiction) Pieroni used that surprise us through language and image are: “the girl that braided her hair with yours,” “a scent of giggles,” “a note on my skin,” “a bruise that had the backside of a rainbow.” It really sounds more like poetry and it is—poetic language to evoke a feeling, a memorable, first-time experience of surprise for the reader.

Here’s a condensed explanation of Pieroni's exercise: Revise a piece of flash fiction you've already written. Use language and image to make your work memorable; use your creativity, your ear for language, and a really good thesaurus. Revise any clichéd phrases and images, with the goal now of surprising the reader with their freshness. If it’s a longer story, try to cut it down to about 500

I took an earlier story I wrote (“I Wanted Her to Go Kicking and Screaming”) from the previous exercise in the book and improved it by removing cliché images or phrases and adding some poetic spice! Looking at a story I already liked with a fresh "smart" perspective made a difference. Now, I'm pretty happy with it (after feedback from fellow writers and three revisions) and I'm sending it out.

I'll let you know if it gets published, but in the meantime, check out The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction!


Reader Comments (1)

"I Wanted Her to Go Kicking and Screaming" was published on in early 2011. Unfortunately, the website has since disappeared! So, you can now read the short-short on my blog post dated 12/18/11!

December 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterWendy A. Skinner

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