Volunteer Marc blogs about what makes mystery flash fiction work.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve really been into flash fiction of all kinds. Sci-fi, comedy, action, horror, etc… I feel flash fiction gives me the full literary experience of a short story while staying true to its incredibly short structure which allows me to finish sometimes two to three or even seven stories a night. But recently, I’ve wondered just how a genre such as mystery can fit within the confines of flash fiction while still building necessary suspense.
I decided to look at some contest-winning stories as well as other popular works to see what the authors were able to do to make the story so successful and how they were they able to do it. Samantha Memi’s “Tempting the Wicked” started off with immediate suspense as the main character’s death propels her into an uncertain afterlife in which her ghost can now see all the events and turmoil that follow her demise. “Unplanned” by Libby Cudmore, nominee for the 2010 Short Mystery Fiction Society Derringer Award, also starts off strongly as the main character is suffering from a vicious gunshot wound and begins backtracking to how this moment came to be.
My creative writing teacher always told me that character backstory was one of the essential building blocks of fiction. Without it, a character can come off as undeveloped, and their actions throughout the story may seem less credible. In “All Those Things We Never Find” by Brandon Nolta, the author was able to uniquely establish backstory through the town’s perception of an old, abandoned and seemingly haunted house. In essence, the author made the house a character.
The number of characters can also dictate the amount of backstory a particular piece can hold. I have noticed that most flash fiction stories have anywhere from two to four characters maximum. I feel this allows the author to further focus on plot rather than having to worry about five or six characters all at once. In “The Unknown Substance,” by Jane Hammons, winner of the 2011 Derringer, the author essentially used only two characters and through backstory chronicled the deteriorating relationship between a mother and her child in this beautiful, gritty story.
All in all, I’ve noticed that flash fiction, as a whole, has the same terrific qualities as any great short story with a need for the reader to invest much less time. So if you are ever in the mood for some light reading, before heading toward the short stories, try reading some flash fiction instead.