30 April 2019

To Flash or Not to Flash


by Paul D. Marks

Jorge Luis Borges
Flash Fiction seems to be very popular these days. It’s short, it’s punchy. It usually ends with a twist.

I haven’t written much flash fiction, really one story.  Fade Out at Akashic’s Mondays Are Murders: http://www.akashicbooks.com/fade-out-by-paul-d-marks/

But one of my favorite short stories of all time can be considered flash fiction: Jorge Luis Borges’ Two Kings and Their Two Labyrinths. This parable hit me hard when I first read it. And I read it over from time to time.

I think it runs about a page, maybe a page and a half. Because it’s so short, I wanted to print the whole story here, but because of copyright concerns I’m not going to. So here’s what Wikipedia says about it – Spoiler Alert:

“A Babylonian king orders his subjects to build him a labyrinth ‘so confusing and so subtle that the most prudent men would not venture to enter it, and those who did would lose their way.’ When an Arab king visited his court, the king of Babylon told him to enter the labyrinth in order to mock him. The Arab king finally got out and told the Babylonian that in his land he had another labyrinth, and Allah willing, he would see that someday the king of Babylonia made its acquaintance.’ The Arab king returned to his land, and launched a successful attack on the Babylonians, finally capturing the Babylonian King. The Arab tied him on a camel and led him into the desert. After three days of riding, the Arab reminds the Babylonian that he tried to make him lose his way in his labyrinth and says that he will now show him his, ‘which has no stairways to climb, nor door to force, nor wearying galleries to wander through, nor walls to impede thy passage.’ He then untied the Babylonian king, ‘and abandoned him in the middle of the desert, where he died of hunger and thirst...’”

It ends on the line, “Glory to the Living, who dieth not.” Yeah, the one who does not dieth gets the glory all right.

The irony of the ending gets me every time and it’s not like it’s a chore to re-read it because, well, because it’s so damn short.

I think what this story illustrates is that flash fiction can boil down the essence of a short story into a very small space. And what you end up with is the essential ingredients to what I think every short story, novella and novel must have. And what are these elements: a beginning, middle and end. Intriguing characters, a brief set up of the situation, a twist or turning of the tables, a conclusion and most importantly, a point.

Have you ever had a friend that starts to tell you a story and never seems to get to the punchline? At the end of their speech they say something like “well I forget the point I was trying to make.” Isn’t that frustrating? Well the same thing happens in short stories. An acquaintance once asked me to read a story they wrote and while the writing was technically good (grammar, punctuation, descriptions, etc… all well-written) the story never got to the point. It just meandered about, so and so meeting so and so and they went to such and such a place and did this and said that. Nothing ever happened and I was bored. I know that some schools of thought believe this is what literary writing should be ;-) . Just slice of life and the writing and descriptions are all that matter, but I just don’t get it. I understand that some stories are more subtle in the way they evolve, but in my humble opinion (and maybe it’s just my personal taste) I want something to happen and I want to feel a sense of the character having been changed or seeing something in a new way.


The most successful stories come to a point. There is a climax and a conclusion, sometimes an irony or a lesson, though not a preachy one. Sometimes the fulfillment of some quest or goal, but always a point. Borges’ story makes a very ironic and clear point while telling a tale of revenge. Now if the Arab King just invited the Babylonian king to his palace and murdered him, would you feel satisfied?


So, while I’m not personally into writing flash fiction on a regular basis, I see the benefits. It can help you hone your craft and learn to build stories that are lean, spare and pithy, and that can ultimately help you write a more compelling longer story or novel. It is the story/novel stripped down to its bare bones.

What do you think?

PS – Other favorite Borges stories include, The Circular Ruins and The Garden of the Forking Paths.

~.~.~
And now for the usual BSP:

My short story House of the Rising Sun and lots of other great stories are in Switchblade - Issue 9, available on Amazon (Kindle version) now: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07QW5GVZF. The paperback version to follow in May.



GoodReads Giveaway: I'm giving away 10 signed paperback copies of my Shamus Award-Winning novel White Heat. Hurry, the giveaway ends on May 1st. Click here to enter to win: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/291413-white-heat



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26 comments:

Barb Goffman said...

I've been writing more flash fiction lately than usual. I'm so busy that I often don't have several days to devote to writing a short story (my usual length is probably between 5,000 and 6,500 words). But I can get a draft of a flash story done in a few hours and then edit and polish it when I have spare time.

Paul D. Marks said...

Barb, I guess one can write it in a flash to be read in a flash ;-) . And I wouldn't mind writing more of it either.

Robert Lopresti said...

Great piece. I have been thinking about Borges lately because AHMM recently bought a story of mine, "The Library of Poisonville," that was inspired by his "The Library of Babel." One of his great pieces of flash fiction is "Borges and I," which you can find on the web, probably in violation of copyright. When Linda Landrigan invited me to choose a story for AHMM's classic corner I picked "The Shape of the Sword," one of three mystery stories he wrote around his fortieth birthday. The others were "Death and the Compass" and your favorite, "The Garden of Forking Paths."

Another Borges' classic, although I don't think it's flash, is "The Cult of the Phoenix" sometimes translated "The Sect of..." It is essentially a riddle and the reader has to deduce what the sect actually is.

By the way, if you love parables, you need to read Ursula K. LeGuin. Try "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," or "She Unnames Them."

Robert Lopresti said...

Oh! I should have said that I had flash fiction in the Jan/Feb issue of EQMM: "Please Do Not Disturb." It is not very Borgesian.

And by the way, Borges was blind and served for a time as the head of the national library in Argentina. In Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose the blind librarian is Brother Jorge of Burgos...

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Wonderful blog! I do agree that writing flash fiction hones our short story writing skills. No wasted words. Encourages a sharp focus.

R.T. Lawton said...

Paul, a good article and on the mark. The "literary" type story you refer to that wanders around without a true ending is what THE CREATIVE WRITER'S HANDBOOK (1975) on pages 69-70 calls a NEW YORKER magazine type of story. A straight line story depending upon the massing of details to push the story forward rather than providing a "true" ending. Personally, I prefer a story with rising action(s) leading to a satisfying climax.

My mind looks at writing flash fiction as if writing a joke. There's the setup (beginning and middle combined) followed by the punchline (twist ending). Not much room for character development or background description.

Eve Fisher said...

Sometimes flash fiction is just the ticket, but I'm like Barb - my average stories run around 5,000 words. But once in a while... something quicker shows up.
Loved the Borges parable, and Rob is right: you'll never forget Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."

joshpac said...

Thanks for this, Paul. With all the current interest in flash, I hope readers will look back at the work of Edward Wellen, who contributed many one-pagers to the mystery and science-fiction magazines from the '50s through the early '90s. Lovely man, and a very talented writer!

Elizabeth said...

I love Borges. He, Orson Scott Card, Oscar Hijuelos, & I share a birthday ;-)

Please visit https://www.fundacioncesaregidoserrano.com/en/ ... the Fundacion Cesar Egido Serrano in Barcelona, home of the Museo de la Palabra (Museum of the Word). Scroll down a bit & read about their international flash fiction competition ... the prize is TWENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS. I entered the last couple of contests there but unfortunately did not place. Entries can be in English, Spanish, & a couple of other languages. The entries need to fit a theme they announce, & be extremely short, drabble length if memory serves. Drabbles are my favorite thing to write anyway.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Excellent piece, Paul! I agree, flash fiction is a great medium. These little stories can really hit you when they work. Shotgun Honey, headed by Ron Earl Phillips, is a long-time proponent of FF and I highly recommend checking out Shotgunhoney.com and reading some stories there. They published my FF “Smotherage” on their site, and included it as a bonus with my novel Flash Bang Booze. Looking forward to your story in Switchblade!

Peter DiChellis said...

Thanks for an interesting post. Writing flash helps me learn to prioritize and cut.

Alan Orloff said...

Writing flash fiction teaches me to make every single word count. When you've only got 700 or 1000 to use, there's no room for wordy indulgences.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Rob. And congratulations on your AHMM sale. I’ll be looking for it in AHMM. Also will check out your story in the Jan/Feb issue of EQMM. I’m way behind and just getting to that issue now. I’d forgotten about the Borges reference in Name of the Rose, which I loved, but haven’t read since it came out. I’ll also have to check out the LeGuin stories. I don’t read much science fiction and always think of her in that vein. As for the other Borges stories you mention, I like pretty much everything I’ve read by him, though there might be some exceptions. And I’ve read most of his stories, though maybe not everything. There’s something about what he writes that I think I relate to.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Jacqueline.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, R.T. Yeah, a “New Yorker,” that’s it. Sometimes those stories will work for me, but mostly I’m with you, preferring a story with rising action leading to the climax. I also agree that flash fiction doesn’t leave much room for character development and background, which is probably why I don’t write much of it. But I have learned to appreciate it more over time.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Eve. I’ll have to check out the LeGuin story.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Josh. I’ll have to look for Wellen. I’m not familiar with him.

Paul D. Marks said...

Well, it’s a little early to wish you a Happy Birthday, Liz, but I’ll try to remember when it comes around. That’s cool that you share your birthday with them. And thanks for the heads up on the contest. I’m not sure how long a drabble should be, I’ll have to look that up, too.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Larry. Yeah, Shotgun Honey is a great place for FF. And your story was a good one!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Peter. It really does help one see what’s necessary and what isn’t.

Paul D. Marks said...

Well said, Alan.

Maggie King said...

I have flash fiction on my writing bucket list. Art Taylor gave a workshop on short stories to my SinC chapter. He handed out a 700-word story the late BK Stevens wrote for Woman's World. I still have it. It's a gem.

Paul D. Marks said...

Good luck with your flash fiction, Maggie. And Art's a great short story writer, so I'm sure the class was terrific.

Leigh Lundin said...

One of Twain's funniest stories featured a goat galloping downhill toward the backside of a bent-over fat man… whilst Twain meandered and took side trips and never got to the point. But only Twain could pull that off.

Paul, I think I was meant to learn a lesson in flash fiction, maybe, sorta.
https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/04/flash-fiction-great-minds.html

Paul D. Marks said...

George is your chum, huh, Leigh? Good one!

Jeff Baker said...

I write way too much flash fiction, probably! I'm in a Facebook group where we write and post one flash story a week (based on a picture prompt) on our blogs (authorjeffbaker.com) and it has made me a better writer. Or, at least, I am able to sit down and write whenever I want/need to now! And I have the complete Borges, including his take on H.P. Lovecraft(!!!!) and I recommend anything by Borges. (And by Paul D. Marks!)