Delightfully Weird: Frozen Moments in Flash Fiction
February 24, 2023
I love when a story pulls me along, each detail pulling me further into the delightful abyss of its own making. A story that makes me forget the real world, and makes me care about the small tribulations of its main character. Flash doesn’t often need a high concept or world-building on an epic scale to gain our interest. It can, but often it’s the small moments told with a slant, told through concrete, specific, but unique details that put us on the stage of the story with the characters that thrill us. We want the chance to feel something new, or something old we’ve forgotten, and one way to do this is to investigate the small scale in delightfully weird ways. In her story, “Circle in the Sand,” Wendy Oleson takes the most mundane scene of shopping in an out-of-town grocery store and spins it into something frightening and resonant by using a unique point of view, and a startling encounter in the cereal aisle!
Back home bananas were 49 cents a pound, not 69 cents, and that was enough to make him hate this place. Still, Bob put two sturdy bunches in the cart and made for the potatoes, which he hadn’t bought in years due to Gracie’s diet. He piled a fifth onto the scale; the needle quivered past three pounds. That’d do. Feeding russets into the flimsy bag, his hands were lumpy and ugly as a potato.
I find this character’s gripes about the prices endearing and totally relatable. I’m instantly there in this scene with this man. Such a small conflict, but a universal one, and I want to know more about him! How much are we alike? The point of view used here is a subtle twist of Omniscient with a Free Indirect Discourse, allowing us to experience this story indirectly in the character’s mind and voice. Usually, flash is more powerful the more it refuses to enter the interior thoughts of the main character, but here this interior is key to the story, key to us rooting for this man! The genius use of these interior thoughts is the way it creates the relationship between him and his wife, how it makes it essential to the story, and creates conflict! We have a front and backstory working in tandem here!
He grunted—or had he? He couldn’t control what came out of his mouth. Though there wasn’t anybody around. Nearly midnight, not a soul in produce, and nobody to help him find the peanut butter aisle. A shuttered pharmacy, a stretch of fresh meats he couldn’t buy without a butcher, and a decades-old song—not old enough to be good—playing above his head. A woman singing about some circle in the sand, whatever the hell it meant. He didn’t understand what women meant, and now that he’d retired, Gracie talked nonsense like it was her full-time job. She’d talked him into this trip that was a failure so far. They were stuck at a motel in the middle of nowhere, Washington—Yakima? Umatilla? Walla Walla? Goddamned wildfires.
I love how Oleson falls further into this free indirect discourse, this unique voice, making him a very specific character. Here, we get the typical backfill in the second paragraph to create context, but it’s made more immediate and less static by this use of point of view, of us tracking this man throughout the grocery store! I love how his gripes are about the store, but they’re really about this change in the relationship with his wife now that he’s retired! This is a particular moment in this character’s life!
But not only context about why he’s in the grocery store, and why he’s having more problems with his wife, we also get an escalation because of the “Goddamned wildfires.” There’s something urgent added to this story, something external, to be afraid of! Adding something external to a story with a lot of internal thoughts can make a difference in making stories more urgent and less static!
Here. He found it. Chunky, yes, and yes to two jars because of the sale, 2/$5.00, that near made it reasonable. He needed bread. Their motel room had a microwave but no fridge. A bathroom sink, a microwave, and an empty space where the little fridge should be. At least the maid had vacuumed the empty space. He’d seen the comforting lines.
I love the way Oleson includes numbers or prices again. Reminding us why we like this character! We get some specific and particular details about the hotel and its lack of amenities, creating mood and tone. This man is not having a good time, but there are those comforting lines of the vacuum. He appreciates a job well done. Another small, but necessary revealing of his character. One of the challenges of writing flash or with brevity is how to constantly reveal something about our characters as the narrative continues and picks up steam. Some details reveal so much about the character’s worldview, while some don’t add much, and with the word count quickly diminishing, we have to figure out how to reveal our characters in subtle, quick, but deep ways. It’s one of my favorite challenges in this form!
A road trip of smoke and stink and roads like quarries of broken concrete. Next, they’d stay with Gracie’s motormouth sister—like having Gracie in stereo when he wanted silence. He plucked a jug of juice, pulpy stuff, and ambled toward the checkout, hip hurting. Damn song repeated itself. Like it had nothing better to do than drive him insane. The potatoes looked like moon rocks—and if Gracie said a thing about them . . .
I love how much is down in this short paragraph. I love how Oleson uses several forms of rhetorical discourse to give us information and context while keeping the front story moving and engaging, while also slipping into this character’s thoughts and voice, and also escalating what is usually a pedestrian task to go grocery shopping.
The first line is a quick summary of this trip so far. Next, we have an escalation built on a future event, followed by an update on his actions across the store, how it’s causing him slight distress, and what might happen when he returns to the hotel. We’ve been guided seamlessly through past, future, present, and future timelines.
The light changed as he rounded the corner. A bright turquoise floated, framing his vision: There before him loomed an enormous peacock. Just a boy when he’d seen the wild peacocks on his grandparents’ land, but this one was massive, with a train bright as church votives and colorful as finger paints. A giant bird at the market. Swirling creature against the store’s black windows.
No—he was mistaken. Not a single, supernatural creature but six, actual, pet-store birds—a cockatoo and conure, lorikeets and parakeets—their claws curling around dowels tied to a grocery cart. He’d confused this bird-transporting contraption for a peacock’s plume. Six sets of bird eyes staring at him, moving together.
Here’s where we benefit from Oleson’s ability to find the wonderfully weird in this moment! Our pedestrian task is going to be interrupted by something wholly unique and surprising! A writer’s ability to make the weird normal and the normal weird is on full display here, and it often makes or breaks stories.
I even love the dip into backfill/backstory with the memory sparked by the mis-seeing of the collection of birds as one peacock. I’m rooting for him so much that I love the dip into his past, the added context that reveals that this collection of birds is a spectacle he can appreciate. A spectacle that might lead to a change or shift for him in this moment of the story! Finding these moments in our flash and micro is usually how we find the story’s true ending.
Nobody had looked that hard at him in years.
A genius use of the Omniscient part of this point of view to tell us something he can’t or isn’t necessarily able to see or know for himself! The separation from the character helps provide us a sense of irony, a joining with the narrator over the character! A subtle, and difficult craft move to pull off, but it actually works to make us care even more about the outcome of this story!
Who the hell brought pet birds to the grocery store?
We know he needs this spectacle, needs this moment to create the possibility of some small reckoning. But I love how Oleson creates more tension by going back into his voice, showing us that he is initially rejecting this possibility! This is one way that flash can use a more plot-driven structure. Often flash or micro forgets to have their characters reject the thing that will change/save them, and the story can fall flat. The change is too easily given, and we lose our sense of resonance from the story.
A woman pushed this miraculous bird cart, a hard-living country woman or some fairy-tale witch with long hair and a throbbing red halo. With birds like green and gold auras at her shoulders. Her hair was the silver of his grandmother’s. His grandmother who had kept birds. But when his grandfather died the town had turned on her. People thought she’d killed him. Because she gardened by the phases of the moon.
Some writers might have skipped this section and might have stayed away from a further dip into his past, his relationship with his grandmother. I’m usually one of those writers. But here, this further dip into backfill deepens his relationship with his grandmother, who also took care of birds. Because of this memory, and this context, it makes more sense that he would interact with this stranger. Our main character is cantankerous, a man who is having trouble being in the world, of connecting with his wife now that he’s retired, so we need a reason for him to interact with this new bird lady! This backfill makes this possible in the structure of the narrative!
“Had to get my babies inside, away from the smoke,” the bird woman told him.
He’d forgotten to get bread. Gracie wouldn’t let him keep bread at home, but now he’d buy it.
Except the bird woman had him pinned against the cereals, his face inches from the three littles with sweet orange cheeks almost stomping their bitty feet to the music.
Ah, first lines of dialogue are so important in flash. Dialogue has more weight anyway in such short stories because it must do so much work in such few words, but also, it often reveals so much about characters. This line creates a specific and unique character through her word choice, showing us how important these birds are to her and that she is willing to do something taboo.
I love that he doesn’t respond right away, and we get another flash into his mind, his feelings. A spectacle is right in front of him, and he cares more about the argument he’s had with his wife over bread! This pause in responding works so well to continue to reveal his character and his relationship with his wife! It’s so ingrained that even the spectacle isn’t getting through his mind yet! And we have another escalation! He’s pinned! He has to interact! This is something he definitely doesn’t want to do! These kinds of moments have great potential for creating reckonings for our characters! One way of escalating in flash is constantly putting something or someone in our characters’ paths!
“It was the worst day of the year for the fires,” she said.
“I’m not from around here,” he said.
“Where’re you from?” She lifted her wrist, and the huge green one stepped up.
We’re privy to his thoughts and annoyances, but he won’t give them freely to this stranger. That’s a great juxtaposition to put the reader into. Another form of irony, except we’re closer to the character and not the narrator this time! Just a great subtle shift of where we are in relation to the distance between us, the character, and the narrator!
His belly yowled, and they all heard it—a cry for help, hunger, or a cry for Gracie, who’d screwed up his life soon as she’d entered it, who’d taught him how much he didn’t know, and who would’ve loved his grandmother. Gracie would have been charmed and grateful to learn from Grandma Nell, learn about the Earth, growing its food, and understanding its creatures, and maybe then Gracie wouldn’t have spent so much of her life counting calories and carbs, trying to lose weight only to gain it. He leaned against the shelves, and the cereal boxes slowly toppled.
And here comes his reckoning! Oleson could have continued this dialogue, and we have found the reckoning in that form of discourse, but smartly, we go back inside his head, where we’ve experienced most of this story. It has a structural and rhetorical harmony! Instead of responding normally, this spectacle has made him into a spectacle in his inability to be chill, to communicate normally with this stranger. This stranger has made him react strangely, and it feels not like a trick, but something that erupts smartly from the story and from his actions!
The reckoning here isn’t a huge shift, he’s still annoyed by his wife, but he sees an essential part of their marriage, their relationship is missing because she never got to be around and learn from his grandmother. And now she’s never had this chance, and like the weight his wife loses and gains, their relationship will always be the same as it is now!
“Smile, honey,” the green bird cawed, fluorescent light igniting its feathers.
And the story could have ended here, on this small reckoning/epiphany and this image of the cereal boxes falling, but Oleson gives so much dignity to this bird woman, this secondary character because she and her birds are the catalysts, and if he won’t respond, the birds/the stranger will still get their final say!