Dispatches | September 16, 2010

In our next issue our reader’s will find a short story, “First Meeting,” by R.T. Smith. “First Meeting” may surprise the TMR faithful as it is a short-short or, as it is now commonly referred to in workshops, flash fiction. No empirical parameters seem to exist for flash fiction except for brevity. Make it short.

I wrote briefly about my experience recording this story in my last post, which inspired me to think even more about this method of storytelling. What makes it work? Better yet, what happens in the 10 minutes it takes to read a piece like “First Meeting” that makes you think for hours?

To ground myself and attempt to answer these questions, I revisited my first real experience with flash fiction. In an intermediate fiction workshop – not too long ago, actually – Marly Swick assigned Tobias Wolff’s short-short “Bullet in the Brain.” She said something like, “and we’ll be discussing Wolff’s flash fiction piece next time so your reading load will be a little light.” Finally, a night of “light” reading so I could concentrate on my own writing – why creative writing workshops are not writing intensive courses is a total mystery to me. Undoubtedly, I took advantage of the short-short, circled a few nice adjectives and wrote a marginal comment on the unique medical specificity.

With this most recent read of the story, I feel I’ve come a bit closer to answering my questions about flash fiction. I don’t think Wolff – or Smith – does anything markedly different in his flash fiction than in his short stories. They key, to me, comes with a sense of reader assumptions or allowing the reader to make correct assumptions, at least at first. Consider the title of Wolff’s story: “Bullet in the Brain.” Guess what someone is probably going to receive. If you’re still unsure, the first line of the story should provide some rather thick foreshadowing: “Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.” The reader quickly finds out Anders’s “murderous temper” is ironic foreshadowing two or three pages later (depending on the print) when “the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.”

Wolff’s utter frankness, wonderful adjectives, and reader-friendly plot make “Bullet in the Brain” work. What happens after Anders is shot makes you think for hours. Go out and read the story, if you haven’t already. Don’t forget to check out R.T. Smith’s piece in our next issue and let me know what you think about both.

Also, I found an interesting two part Youtube “Bullet in the Brain” adaptation featuring Tom Noonan.

Part 1

Part 2