Tana is dating a person who calls herself The Red Spirit of Joy. She is fussy about details: her clothes are red, never crimson, not scarlet. Don’t get fancy with the descriptors, Tana, she says while putting on lipstick. My…
Moments Upon Moments
I think one of the hardest things for fiction writers to negotiate in fiction is the passage of time. I heard a lot of overcompensating when I was a student: a novel should cover at least a year in a character’s life; a short story should at most be a month in someone’s life; insert your favorite sitting-around-the-workshop-table-trying-to-sound-knowledgeable pronouncement here.
What I love about flash is that to be successful, you have to become fluent in all the different ways to signify narrative time. You don’t always have the time to describe the change in morning light, or pages being X’d off a calendar; sometimes, bluntness is best: “two and a half weeks have passed.” Sometimes, it’s better to have time’s movements rooted in specific character actions and reactions. For example, in “Vacations”: “A person, best described as a disheveled Santa Claus, was seen driving around and throwing candy at local children.”
That sentence, which might at first feel its purpose is to only be a joke, shows the reader what Tana’s love interest is doing, as well as puts the reader in a double-moment. They feel like they’re scrolling through social media with Tana and pausing on this, but they’re also aware that narrative time has passed enough that The Red Spirit of Joy was able to do those actions, and someone else was able to write and post about it. Moments upon moments.
The rest of the story is a mix of expansions and contractions. Months pass, marked both by specific details (in line at the post office, lingering outside addiction clinics) as well as blunt time markers (months pass). Then the story lingers in a specific memory: Tana and The Red Spirit of Joy’s first date. It’s meant to root the reader in their relationship: is it romantic? Are they involved with each other because there’s affection there, or because both want to be in love? Or because they enjoy the grand gestures that can accompany romance’s early stages? Even though it’s a moment in the past, the story’s hinge is seeing them together, before things fell apart.
One of the most interesting things to me about narrative time is how it tends not to work in the ways people delineate time; very few stories account for the seconds and minutes of a day. But it does mimic the way the brain tends to process things. Small, inconsequential moments move quickly, often in phrases if they need to be noted in the story, sometimes not even worth making it onto the page. But the moments where a character and the reader pause and consider are heavier. They expand and take up more of the story’s space. Lingering in short stories, but especially flash, is usually successful when it doesn’t feel like a moment of authorial indulgence, but when it heightens either plot or character. Time handled well keeps a reader engaged.
MEGAN GIDDINGS is a fiction editor at The Offing and a contributing editor at Boulevard. You can find some of her writing at Arts & Letters, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, and Territory. More about her can be found at www.megangiddings.com.