Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: The Story Begins Before The Story Has Begun.

I love the creative ways that writers sneak meaning into unexpected places. Many flash fiction writers decide that, when every word really does counts, even the title is an opportunity to convey meaning to a reader. Which is why I’m so glad that we have M’s piece, “A Three-Character Play Wherein One of the Characters Never Appears on Stage” on the agenda for today. (Story in its entirety below)

I have to admit that I love a well-crafted title, and I’ve used this technique often myself in stories such as “My Boyfriend Lives in the Tree In Front of My House,” and “Sometimes I Still Smell the Smoke in the Walls.” A fellow writer, Travis MacDonald, even takes guerrilla titling to an extreme in his piece:

Everyone Enjoyed the Buffet At The Chef’s Wife’s Wake Until That Awkward Moment When The Neighbor’s Dog Disturbed The Casket, Spilling Little Yellow IOUs All Over the Borrowed Carpet.

Flash fiction writers are discovering what journalists have known all along: headlines and lead sentences—the who-what-when-where-why served up front and without apology—are essential to communication between writer and reader. Titles I love include Ron Carlson’s “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”,  Kona Morris’ “I’m Pretty Sure Nicholas Cage is My Gynecologist” and Rob Geisen’s “The Night I Discovered I Wasn’t as Cool As Han Solo”. Whether your title is somber or humorous, a well-crafted flash fiction title can convey meaning to the reader before the story has even begun. A nice trick when you only have 1000 words, no?

But is that cheating?

I suppose, technically, if the story is exactly 1000 words and the writer is only trying to squeeze in a few extra, it could be questionable. But more often than not, an effective flash fiction story falls well short of the 1000-word cutoff anyway, so it’s usually not so much about “getting in extra words” as it is about using the title differently. Borrowing from journalism—which, incidentally is another place where writing is confined by layouts and wordcounts—the flash fiction story squeezes meaning into every available space.

So M, let’s look at your story, “A Three-Character Play Wherein One of the Characters Never Appears on Stage

Obviously I think your title is really working to not only convey additional information to the reader but also to provide a potent “hook” into your story. I also like the natural leanness of your language—I can tell you come to flash fiction from poetry, and often poets have an easier grasp on this than writers coming from other genres. And lastly you have some really striking images—I particularly like the building as a delinquent dental patient and the pear in yogurt as volcanic islands. I feel as if this story is already well on its way to being an effective piece of flash, keeping tension strung and covering a great deal of distance in a short amount of time.

What still needs work are some technical issues of clarity most often brought about by your use of multiple pronouns. While I’m also a fan of nameless characters, I find it works best when you limit anonymous characters to one male and one female. As soon as pronouns are used for more than two characters, or if two or more characters are using the same gender pronoun, it can quickly become confusing.

Right away in this piece I’m not sure whether “her cigarettes never go out” and “she never leaves the window” refer to the neighbor or the speaker—it could be either. When you finally say “he lives across the street” I’m surprised that the neighbor is male. Then I’m trying keep track of the “he” of the neighbor vs. the husband, and the “she” as our speaker vs. the dead woman, who may or may not be the same woman? Now I realize a bit of mystery, especially in the Hitchcock legacy, can be wonderful, but too much might be getting in the way of your story.

There are many ways you might be able to fix this. One suggestion is rather than using straight pronouns, you can use different “names” such as “The Husband”, “The Neighbor”, etc. Or you can refer to characters as “the one that smokes” or “the one with the lamp”.

Lastly, by the end I’m still unsure if he killed a third woman “she” or the speaker. (If this is what you are going for, then great, but if you wanted more clarity by the end you may still have to tweak). And then when he addresses himself by name, Jeff Jeffries, after a story full of anonymities, it feels just a touch too “ta-da!” and possibly contrived? Not sure if you need it…

M, I think once you can clear up these confusions for the reader, the story will have the effect you want it to. I hope this helps you on your revisions, and thanks so much for trusting me with your work and letting us all learn from your process!

Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

Please feel free to join in the conversation! And if you would like me to feature your flash piece in progress, please find me on Facebook or email me at


A Three-Character Play Wherein One of the Characters Never Appears on Stage

by M 

She has a neighbor. Her neighbor has a lamp. The lamp has a green glass shade. The lamp never goes out. Her cigarettes never go out. She almost never leaves the kitchen window. It’s the only place she smokes now. He lives in the building across the street. She’s watched the window for weeks. She’s never even seen him.

Eight in the morning, the lamp is on. Three in the afternoon, lamp’s on. Midnight. Lamp. On. It’s pre-dawn. The building looks like the mouth of a delinquent dental patient, every tooth knocked out by neglect except for one green straggler suspended by a rubber band of gum tissue.

She’s on the second floor. She has binoculars. She’s too low to see anything but the lamp. “You look like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window,” her husband says. He’s scratching his balls and doesn’t remotely resemble Grace Kelly. He’s obsessed with bottle blondes in classic films. He’s carrying a glue bottle. He thinks she spends too much time in the kitchen since her mother died. She thinks he spends too much time out of it. She wants to ask why glue doesn’t stick to the inside of the bottle. She wants him to sing I got glue, babe. “If this is your idea of quitting, it’s not working,” he says.

She’s waiting for the day, the hour, the lamp goes out. She’ll call the cops. “This doesn’t require police intervention.” She says something out of the ordinary: A slight evasion in the infinite cosmos of arrested light. Gregory Building. Fifth floor. South-facing corner apartment.

It’s a slow night. They find the corpse in the bathroom. Female. Blonde. Early thirties. Fatal blow to the back of the head. Blood coating the rim of the tub. Every front tooth knocked out.

“Jesus, chill out, Jeff Jeffries,” he says. He’s slicing a pear into a bowl of vanilla yogurt. The slices are volcanic islands. The yogurt is a tranquil lagoon. His knife is caught by the glare of a grow lamp she turns on every morning, turns off every evening for the orchid she knows she’ll kill. It needs light and dark in equal doses. Eventually she’ll forget this.


M is a performance poet who occasionally dabbles in other genres. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals, and received a number of awards, including finalist position for two consecutive years in the annual Rattle $5000 Poetry Prize. Her poetry chapbook, To That Mythic Country Called Closure, winner of the 2012 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Prize, will be released in the fall of 2013. You can listen to her perform selections of her work at the Rattle Audio Archives: She also does her own manicures weekly, and has been known to wear foundation, mascara, and lipstick while undergoing major surgery.

2 thoughts on “Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: The Story Begins Before The Story Has Begun.

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