Novella-in-Flash Writing Prompt #4

One of my favourite writers of flash fiction is Jonathan Cardew – over and over again, his stories are inventive and surprising, often in remarkable ways.

Have a read of this flash by Cardew, published in Passages North:

What do you notice happening in it?

Of course, there’s the very strangeness of the scenario – it’s both macabre and surreal. Flash fiction is a good vehicle for that combination of gruesome weirdness and absurdity. Another notable feature is the sheer quality of the detail, the sentence-making itself. The language is conversational – we imagine a voice speaking, and yet it’s expressed with precision, invention, and relish. Lastly I’m struck by the move towards an unusual image at the end – taking the story in a completely new and unexpected direction (how did we get to hippos??) , and creating an unresolved, resonant quality by deliberately juxtaposing and not explaining. For a moment, we’re really there on the savannah (on a “blisteringly gorgeous day” – a lovely touch).

Invitation: Write a new flash fiction, made relevant to your novella’s story situation, in which:

• Something gruesome, macabre, or strange happens, yet the narrator considers it entirely normal or routine (OPTIONAL: let them explain their unconvincing justification for it).


• Someone is conserving or setting something aside for future benefit (it doesn’t have to be surreal or macabre). What’s their motive?


• Someone alters their physical appearance for a particular purpose or ulterior motive. (This could relate to their clothing, jewellery, tattoos, make-up, or hairstyle, for instance). What’s the expected benefit and does it pay off for the protagonist?


• Two people conspire in an activity that contravenes a perceived “norm” (whether a formal law or a social code, tradition or expectation). What’s at stake? What are the consequences?


• Identify and isolate some other ingredient of this story (one that you admire or are interested in), and transpose this aspect into your novella’s story situation, making it entirely new in the process, by thinking laterally.

OPTIONAL: For any of the above, end the story by moving towards an image (a metaphor, simile or comparison) that is unexpected yet apt. Don’t explain or spell out the relevance. Expand into description of physical details. Let the image and its sensations linger in the reader’s mind.

What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Justin Torres’s We the Animals

We the Animals, by Justin Torres (London: Granta Books, 2012), 125 pp.

Subject Matter – a coming-of-age story about a young boy, one of three brothers, in a mixed-race family in New York. The family is a madcap, affectionate one, yet domestic violence is a feature of the parents’ chaotic relationship and their treatment of the boys. In the process of growing up, the boy discovers his sexuality. 

Structure/Style – The book is written mainly through longer short-short stories. There are 19 chapters. Some are only 3-4 pages long, but many run to 6-9 pages, and one is 12 pages long. As a result this novella stretches the category of the novella-in-flash, with so many chapters over 1,000 words (though under 2,500). Stories of 1,000-2,000 words in length have been called “Sudden Fiction”, following the anthology Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, published in 1983 and edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. This was an influential book in the gradual crystallisation of the flash fiction category/label (before James Thomas’s 1992 anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories officially established the term Flash Fiction, describing stories of up to roughly 750 words). So if there were a category “novella-in-sudden-fiction” We the Animals would be there. Stylistically, the book is very energetic (in both the characters’ actions and also the vitality of the language) and the sentences are often strongly rhythmical, with recurring use of triple clauses (“We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock.” (p.1)). These create a wonderful musicality.

What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?

(1) We the Animals is a classic example of how to use vivid action and dramatic energy to engage the reader – the boys have an irrepressible, defiant humour, and play wild family games (dressing up like monks, smashing fruit with a hammer, pretending to be trolls etc). These idiosyncracies linger in the memory. There is also significant conflict within the family – between the mother, father and children. And the descriptions are intensely physical and sensory. One of the lasting impressions of the book, therefore, is its sheer verve.

(2) This book is a good model for writers who want to produce extended scenes and give each chapter a clear narrative arc – generally Torres includes plenty of action and narrative progression, usually with a clear shift embedded in each story by the end – a kind of “lift-off” into an image or resonating new idea. 

(3) We the Animals is a remarkable example of how to use Point of View skilfully. Many early chapters use a first person plural “we” narrator and present the three brothers as a group; but gradually as the boys grow older an independent “I” narrator emerges as a feature – someone with his own action, occasionally with his own chapters separate from his brothers, someone with his own particular responses to his situation – the POV thereby reflecting the individuation of the adolescent. The use of the children’s point of view is nuanced – there are times when they don’t fully recognise the evidence of domestic violence between the parents, but the reader can infer it – the POV conveying the limited understanding of youth. In the penultimate chapter, there is a brilliant shift into an almost “dissociated” narrator – the boy describing himself using a third person “he/him” – which absolutely fits the fraught emotional situation.

(4) We the Animals is also a brilliant model for how to “pace” a novella. The first six chapters set up the family situation without moving the plot forward – a kind of “kaleidoscope view” of the family life from different angles, a rich exploration of character for its own sake. In the seventh chapter, there is the first sense of narrative development, acknowledging material that has preceded – “Papa disappeared for a while, and Ma stopped showing up for work, stopped eating, stopped cooking for us…” (p.30). The independent “I” narrator, as mentioned, eventually appears more strongly, and the novella then takes a more serious turn as the boy’s awakening into adulthood changes our experience of the story. The final chapter is highly metaphorical and enigmatic – a lyrical prose poem quietly closing this sequence of chapters that otherwise feel emphatically like fully-fledged stories. The book brilliantly shows readers how to set up a narrative context gradually and then how to crank the gears of the developing story.

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