I am not especially a music fan. That is not to say I don’t enjoy music — I do — but I don’t invest the kind of mind space in it I do, say, comic books, movies or gaming. I do listen to music, but usually just as background noise at work or while I write. As often as not, the music I am listening to is associated with one of the things I do care about, in the form of scores to films and games I enjoy. There are a couple of other genres I enjoy as well: 90s alt rock and grunge, tied mostly to the fact that I was in my late teens and twenties during that time, and Blues and Celtic music (usually traditional songs by modern bands). Then there are the occasional pop, rock or other genre songs that just seem to fit (Of Monsters And Men’s “Dirty Paws” is a big one for me right now) or bands that are the only one in their genre that I like (Caravan Palace is great, but I have yet to hear another electro-swing band I like).
So what does any of this have to do with writing? Just today, as I was working at my desk, listening to Pandora, trying to concentrate on an excel spreadsheet but really thinking about this story I just cannot seem to get right, and the aforementioned “Dirty Paws” came on. For some reason, today was the day I realized why I liked that song so much, and why both Blues and Celtic are compelling to me: it tells a story. This is likely to sound obvious and maybe even a little stupid, but I had never really deeply considered my own tastes in music since, as I stated, music is generally not a big deal for me. But with that small realization, I not only started thinking about all the songs (as well as musicals, from The Little Mermaid to The Little Shop of Horrors) I really like, but also the very idea of story and how it speaks to me. Into this jumble of thoughts on music and narrative crept one other question that is nearly always floating around in the back of my writer-brain: why flash fiction?
I love flash fiction, both writing it and reading it. There is something about the brief, yet complete narrative that exemplifies the form. There is a lot of bad flash fiction — most of it not bad because it is poorly written, but because it usually represents a piece of a story or a vignette, rather than a whole story (and I include plenty of my own in that category) — but the good is really, really good. And it was in the convergence of these apparently disparate subjects, music and flash fiction, that the answer came: a good flash story is the same as a strong ballad or narrative song. They are both a form of story that takes just a few minutes to consume, but can be experience over and over to find the nuance and little details or just to *feel* its impact again.
I don’t know anything about songwriting, so I will not presume to make comparisons other than to guess there is some degree of similarity, but I can say that a good flash fiction story is very difficult to write. For all its brevity, crafting it is a painstaking process. Trained by Big Fat Fantasies and Unending Series and Bloated Literary Darlings, as writers we tend to use far too many words. That is not to say that there is not something wonderful in beautifully crafted, dense prose or a complex web of characters and subplots, but core narratives, the hearts of stories, can usually be distilled down to simple, powerful statements. Look no further than micro fiction like Six Word stories (when I first started my twitter feed, it was all #sixwordscifi) for proof. But getting those narratives trimmed down to size while preserving both artful wordsmithing and meaningful characterization and plotting is a uniquely difficult, sometimes apparently impossible, process.
Not every story can be told as flash fiction, just as sometimes a complete album or score is necessary to tell the story through music. But more often than not, I think, a work can be powerful and entertaining and, most of all, satisfying in a mere three to five minutes.