Welcome to the second installment of my pre-Eroticon, I-Had-More-Material-Than-Will-Fit-In-The-Session series. This one is on flash fiction and plot. Or, more, specifically, does flash fiction need to have a plot?
Opinions vary (sometimes violently), but my answer to this question is yes. And no. Flash is a wily thing.
Before I can dig into my non-response properly, it’s important to look at what, exactly, “plot” means.
Generally speaking, plot is defined as a story’s rising and falling action, or what’s typically called a narrative arc. Implicit in that understanding is the assumption that a traditional narrative arc is one of a story’s baseline requirements. In other words, it needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. If it doesn’t, it’s something else—a vignette, a scene, a prose poem, but not a “proper story”.
So, given all that, what’s the difference between flash fiction, (which often doesn’t contain a clean narrative arc), and, say, a prose poem?
It’s a thin line, but the difference is in the fact that fiction, unlike poetry, is an inherently temporal form – it’s rooted in a particular time and place. By contrast, a prose poem is, essentially, an observation, which means that, as prescient as the observation might be, it has a universal quality that prevents it from anchoring itself to a specific, temporal space.
Stories, unlike prose poems, are populated by characters with needs and motivations, and those characters need to exist somewhere. That somewhere (even if it’s just an empty room in an unknown year) implies physical existence, the passage of time and changes in circumstance. Stories have characters and characters have needs, which means that something will change, or fail to in a meaningful way. That process is dynamic, and the dynamic movement from point A to point B is what forms a narrative.
This tinkers with the traditional notion of plot, but less so than you’d think. It doesn’t matter if the change happens on the grand scale or unfolds quietly in a single page. What matters is that the change is rooted in a character’s longing. It can be as broad as trying to save the world, or as subtle wanting to get out of bed and not being able to. If there’s need there’s change and that naturally forms plot.
And, in the end, that’s all plot really is—a character pursuing a need. Or, to put it more dramatically, plot is the portrait of a character’s desire—how they pursue it, how it’s thwarted, and how (or if) it’s resolved. That resolution of a desire usually comes in the form of an epiphany—a realization that signals a pivot in the character’s outlook or circumstance. That pivot is the change that represents movement through a set of temporal circumstances, i.e.: the plot.
The journey from challenge to resolution has acres of room to breathe in novels. It has the opposite in flash fiction. But just because a character’s longing can’t unfold in epic or obvious ways doesn’t mean it’s not there.
While the brevity required in short, short fiction doesn’t often allow for a “fully developed plot”, flash fiction has the luxury of taking a microscope to the thwarted desires and revelations that drive traditional narrative forms. Flash fiction may appear to be inherently “plotless”, but if there is a character at the heart of it, and that character has a need, then that story has the DNA of plot and can, quite comfortably, be considered proper fiction.
Now, I’m going to be wild and crazy and say something that a lot of people would disagree with. I don’t think flash fiction has to have a plot, even in DNA form. That said, it also can’t just shuffle around without a point or purpose.
Monologues, vignettes, scenes and sketches, like prose poetry, are driven (generally speaking) by the universal observations I mentioned earlier. While some would disagree with my taking an inclusive view, I believe that these are also legitimate forms of storytelling because they achieve through observation what plot does through desire and conflict—they reflect an essential human truth or condition.
When you strip it down, that’s what fiction is, regardless of length. It’s a made-up story that reflects an essential human truth. That’s why characters in flash fiction are more important than a beginning, middle and end. The truth can be anything from desperately wanting to fuck your ex, to grieving the loss of a child. Whether it happens through observation, or the temporally specific plot movements, fiction reflects what it is to be a person in the world. Whether it’s a novel or a paragraph, that’s what fiction does.
So, does flash fiction need a plot?
It would be more useful to ask if flash fiction can accommodate a plot, and the answer to that is yes. But flash can also accommodate breathless observation, devastating reflection and humanity in all of it glorious, filthy complexity, and, in the end, they serve the same function as plot.
We are humans, and humans are driven by desire. Whether that desire is for a glass of water or the golden fleece, longing, wanting and needing are fundamental human conditions. As long as a story taps into what it is to be fundamentally human, it’s storytelling and it’s powerful, regardless of length.
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