The following flash fiction – ‘A Way’, by Sarah Freligh – is a brilliantly written example of a story that is more than one narrative at once.
At the very start, ‘A Way’ seems to focus on two young people, Cindy and the narrator, who are conspiring over stolen wine and gossiping about other schoolkids. Quite soon, as the wine “unlatches the hinge in our tongues”, the story neatly swings on its own hinge into another story: about Cindy’s mother. I won’t offer “plot spoilers” here; read it first to enjoy how the story unfolds from one superbly distinctive detail to another, from donkey suits, to a red-ribbonned Bible, to fruit speared through a plastic sword.
In the final six lines, even though the story is no longer ostensibly about Cindy, her name is mentioned three times. The “story-within-a-story” (about Cindy’s mother) leaves the reader understanding Cindy in a more three-dimensional and emotionally profound way. Through the device of a “story-within-a-story”, Freligh has radically enhanced the reader’s empathy for the teller of that story. And one might argue that there is a further layer – because it’s really the narrator telling a story about Cindy telling a story. So we might infer something, too, about narrator’s friendship with Cindy.
Now imagine how it would be if Cindy and the narrator were the two main characters in a novella-in-flash, and Cindy’s mother a secondary character. We would have learned a good deal more about one of the main characters simply through the author focusing most of a story on a secondary character – because the two people are entangled. The behaviour of the mother carries implications for how we understand the daughter.
Allowing certain chapters of a novella to seemingly focus on a secondary character’s life but still subtly say something about an entangled primary character gives a novella richness and variety. There are even whole novellas-in-flash (such as Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street) that focus on a large and varied ensemble cast primarily in order to reveal something about the central narrator who is witnessing that ensemble cast of secondary characters. The trick is that the reader always knows that the main narrator/protagonist remains our primary ongoing concern. The secondary characters do not take over too much.
In summary, then, it can be useful to consider your novella’s main character(s) as entangled in a network of loyalties and obligations to other characters. In what ways are your main characters put under pressure by the words and deeds/drives and needs of secondary characters – directly or indirectly? In what ways are characters invested in or affected by each other’s moral choices and actions, such that the values of one character impose upon the identity of another, creating friction or internal conflict for them? Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays is a useful example of a novel (written in short chapters, a kind of novel-in-flash in all but name) in which the main character is repeatedly put under extreme pressure by what the characters around her want.
Here’s Sarah Freligh’s story to enjoy:
from Fictive Dream, February 2023: ‘A Way’, by Sarah Freligh
After reading Sarah Freligh’s flash fiction, adapt any of the following prompts to fit your novella’s storyline. Write a scene/chapter/story that features:
• A main character gossiping about another character. Let the gossip about that second character lead us to a deeper understanding of the person doing the gossiping. Crucially, let the main character’s identity be implicated/entangled in what we hear the second character has been doing or saying.
• A main character encounters someone who works as a semi-professional in a given sport (whether golf, as in the story example, or any other sport), for example at local or regional club, but not at national level. Let the moral values of that semi-professional be questionable, in an interesting way.
• A character engages in religious activity (for example joining a congregation, community, or prayer group, or undertaking a religious ritual) for some other more questionable motive. What are the consequences and what are the conflicts (internal/external) involved?
• A character’s tongue is loosened after they drink alcohol or take drugs. What secret do they reveal, or what verbal boundary do they cross?
• If it helps, use the following picture as a way into the material:
Above all, “make it new”!
More about Sarah Freligh’s writing here: SarahFreligh.com.
More about Michael Loveday’s Novella-in-Flash mentoring: https://novella-in-flash.com/about-the-course/
You can sign up to this novella-in-flash writing prompt series here: