I am thrilled today to welcome Calum Kerr to celebrate the publication of his new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property. Calum is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife - the writer, Kath Kerr - their son and a menagerie of animals. Calum is guest-posting today on flash openings and endings, a subject dear to my own heart.
Alpha and Omega
In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘flash’.
So, I’ve been asked to finish off my blog tour, by writing about beginnings and endings. Do you have any idea how hard it is to start a piece like that? With everyone analysing it? Anyway, I think what I came up with might have got your attention.
But is it as good as ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’? Or, ‘Call me Ishmael’? Or, ‘You beg like a Bible verse: taut, memorable, ghost-written’?
Don’t recognise the last one? Feel like you should? Well, don’t be ashamed. It’s not from a famous novel. It’s from a flash-fiction written by Amy Mackelden and published in the recent edition of FlashFlood for National Flash-Fiction Day here. When I was reading through the submissions, it was an opening line which stopped me in my tracks. It made me think, made me appreciate the concision of the writing, and most importantly it made me want to read on.
After all, that’s what a good beginning does. It forces us to read the next sentence because we want answers to the questions posed in the first. If it’s a good second sentence, it simply asks more questions, as does the third, and before you know it: you’re hooked.
The literary theorist, Roland Barthes, was a ‘structuralist’ who spent some time categorising the different types of sentences and phrases we find in fiction (in S/Z, Roland Barthes, Blackwell, 2002). He discovered five separate types, which he called ‘codes’. One was presenting information, one was using cultural references, and one was posing questions. This he called the ‘hermeneutic code’. And the purpose of this code was not simply to construct phrases which pose questions to the reader, but to pose questions that can only be answered from within the text. Thus, when we read a sentence like Amy’s, we immediately want to know who the narrator is, who they are speaking about, why they’re begging, and why they beg in such a way. Four questions with one sentence: no wonder I wanted to read on.
The hermeneutic code is absolutely crucial to flash-fiction. When I have tried to define what flash-fiction actually is, I’ve talked about the way it uses language and the way it tells a story by implication and connotation. This can occur because of the use of the hermeneutic code. By writing sentences which pose questions and ask the reader to do some work, often for the entirety of a story (bar the ending, usually, but more on that later) you are asking them to find answers which only exist within the story, but answers which are often not provided, only hinted at, or described by an absence.
This, I believe, is what makes the best flash-fictions work. They hook the reader, they pull them along on a line of questions, and the reader needs to decode the language, the setting, their knowledge of stories, and the few ‘clues’ in the story, in order to discover what has happened and what it all means. And for those reasons, it leads to a very engaging, immersive and memorable type of story.
Of course, in a story like that, the ending is going to be crucial. In many cases, it’s the one place where the questions stop, and some answers are provided. This, I believe, is what has led to the definition of flash-fiction which compares it to a joke: a feed and then a punch-line; and to comments about ‘twists in the tale’.
A good flash is not simply a joke, and a twist in the tale which is nothing more than a random event, a deus ex machina, satisfies no-one. No, the ending of a flash-fiction should be the moment of clarification, the point at which the tangled snarl of questions is pulled taut and the straight line from opening to ending is finally seen.
Now, this is not the only way to write a flash, but some structural analysis of flash-fictions shows that many are written in this way, making good use of the possibilities of the hermeneutic code, then resolving the questions at the end. There is something eminently satisfying about it. It’s not a model for writing flash, but it’s fascinating to see it in action.
Let me finish off by giving you an example from my own work which I like to think works in this way.
Her bag was packed when I arrived home. She was still dressed in her work clothes, her shoes on her feet. The kitchen had been cleaned.
It’s not you, it’s me, I thought. It’s always me. It always was me and it always will be.
But it wasn’t, it was her.
She couldn’t stay, she told me. It wasn’t working, she told me. It had run its natural course, she told me.
Stay, I requested. Please stay, I pleaded. Please, please stay, I begged.
It’s not you it’s me, she said. I’m not the same person I was, she said. I need something more, she said.
Why? I asked. Tell me why, I asked. Please, forget the words you are meant to say at times like this and tell me why; tell me the truth, I asked.
I’ll call you, she said, as she pulled on her coat. Just give it a few days, she said as she picked up her bag. Just ... don’t ring me, she said as she closed the door.
I sat in the clean, empty kitchen, and heard a blackbird outside, singing into the silence, saying all the things that hadn’t been said, couldn’t have been said, have never been said, but in a language I couldn’t understand.
[Originally published in Lost Property.]
Readers you can buy Lost Property here or direct from the publisher CinderHouse. The individual e-pamphlets which make up the book are also available via Dead Ink here.