How to Avoid Avoiding Plot

I wrote the brief craft essay below, about common traps that keep writers from writing well-plotted flash fiction, for Flash Fiction Chronicles.

I’m currently teaching a flash fiction course and my students and I have spent a fair amount of class time discussing the borderlands between flash fiction and prose poetry. While I agree that there’s a fair amount of overlap, for me what makes a piece “flash fiction” is the story, the plot.

One thing this course is teaching me is that there are many, many ways to avoid writing a plot. The following are some common traps I’ve seen my students fall into that get in the way of the plot.

  1. Focusing all of your energy on rendering a static moment with beautiful, lyric language. I love lyric language as much as the next reader and there’s certainly a place for this kind of descriptive writing (it’s called prose poetry). But in my class, you have to push beyond just writing lovely sentences. I need to see something important shift in the course of the story. Read your piece from beginning to end and ask yourself “What changes?” If you don’t have an answer, you don’t have a story.
  2. Writing a really quirky interesting character and showing us how quirky and interesting he is. This is one I see a lot. The story is a long, detailed account of an obsessive compulsive earthworm salesman going through his day. The details are strong, the writing is compelling and the character is fascinating, but there’s no plot. No matter how interesting your character is, you still need a plot. Don’t just show me an ordinary day in the life of a quirky character, show me the day when everything changes for him. If you happen to find yourself in the bottom of this well, there is good news. You’ve already got an interesting character! So if you can find the right plot for him, you’ve got a recipe for a successful flash.
  3. Revealing something at the end of the story that the character knew, but we didn’t. This is an especially tricky one because there is often an epiphany involved, the problem is that the epiphany is for the reader not the character. So you get to the end of the story and it turns out, the whole thing is being narrated by a plastic snowman inside of a snow-globe. Whoa! the reader thinks. I didn’t see that coming. In this way the story acts as kind of a joke, meant to surprise the reader. But is it a story? Not yet. The snowman knew his situation the whole time, so nothing has changed or been revealed for him. Surprises are fine in stories, but you must make sure the surprise isn’t covering up the fact that there’s no plot.
  4. Something huge and life-changing happens to the character, but the character has nothing to do with it. Passive people make great, low drama friends, but passive characters make boring stories. Say your character is a low-income mother of four desperately trying to pay for her youngest son’s lung transplant. In the final paragraph of the story, she receives a phone call informing her that an anonymous philanthropist has donated the money for the surgery. Sure, something changes, but our character had nothing to do with it. Make sure your protagonist has some agency in the story and that she acts. In this example, perhaps the more interesting point of view character might be the philanthropist. How did he find out about his woman? What made him choose her as a benefactor for his good deeds? We want to know about him because he’s active in the story, even if he never actually appears on the scene.

There are countless ways to avoid writing plot. And it’s a difficult task, especially in flash fiction where you have limited space. Be on the lookout for these four common traps and you can avoid falling into them.

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