“Flash! Ah-aaah! Saviour of the Universe!”
If you’re not familiar with the 1980 Flash Gordon movie or indeed the Queen soundtrack that graces it, then that opening line may make me sound like a lunatic. Hell, even if you are familiar with the movie and music you may think I’ve lost it. The DVD occupies a proud place in my collection of movies based on comic books, and if you haven’t yet seen it, I ABSOLUTELY INSIST that you enrich your life with it as soon as possible. Max Von Sydow portrays Ming the Merciless, and he played chess with Death, for goodness’ sake! Flash and James Bond (sort of) duel with whips on a tilting disc that randomly sprouts deadly blades from its surface, in a floating city where Brian Blessed is Prince of the Birdmen! Beat that, Citizen Kane! For UK readers, it’s got Peter Duncan from Blue Peter in it! Peter Bloody Duncan! And then there’s the rocket cycle, and Prince Vultan’s joyous cry of “GORDON’S ALIVE!”, and the exquisitely wicked beauty of Ornella Muti’s Princess Aura, and … and …
I’m so sorry. I’m afraid I seem to have wandered off my point, somewhat.
The reason I chose to employ that particular lyric as a rather clumsy opening gambit is because I wanted to talk a little about Flash Fiction, and how, while it may not be the Saviour of the Universe, it certainly is jolly good fun, both to read and to write. I wasn’t really aware of it until a couple of years ago, and while I certainly didn’t dismiss the form, it never occurred to me that it was something I might want to try, or if I’m honest something that I might want to read. A hundred or so words? What could anyone do with that? How could anyone fit a plot, mood, character etc in such a small space, and tie it all up with the shiny bow of a satisfying ending? At best, I probably thought that a writer might be able to fit one of those things in the piece, make it a snapshot of atmosphere or an illuminating character moment, nothing more than a breath of story, the merest taste.
I was, of course, an idiot.
I still may be an idiot, but not in terms of my hesitancy around flash fiction. My first step towards falling in love with the form was of course, where I found a community of exceptional writers of microfiction (which is just getting better and better by the way – many is the #FP that takes my breath away with its skill and beauty) and soon after that I began reading the flash posted on Twitter via the wonderful S. That led me to the blogs of other writers where I enjoyed, and still enjoy, an abundance of microfiction that happily makes me massively jealous with its genius. Alas, Storybandit is no more, but once upon a time it offered varying prompts – or Writing Dares – for flash fiction (a setting, five or six words to include in the piece, maybe an opening or closing line, a word count to work towards etc) and then it’s up, up and away.
I’d worked with prompts before, mostly for competitions and the like, where the word counts were bigger and the theme was maybe more general than the sometimes challengingly surgical prompts from Storybandit (my vocabulary has expanded thanks to having to Google some of El Bandito’s word choices!) but even so, the strain showed in those earlier efforts of mine – many was the story that cracked at the seams thanks to my ham-fisted crowbarring of a prompt that didn’t belong. So, I thought that prompts and I were perhaps something of an ill-fit, but along with #FP, the lure of Storybandit proved enticing, and everyone’s work was so brilliant, and I never could resist a dare, and so I dipped my toe into those creative waters, and absolutely loved it.
Adhering to the parameters of the Writing Dares led me to thinking in directions that I might not otherwise have gone in – A blossoming relationship where I might have written about the break-up, something joyous where I might have gone for tears, a (hopefully) amusing aside instead of a scare. It’s been fun.
Storybandit has gone, but there are many other prompt pages out there, and the most recent of which I’ve become aware is , curated by the always-inspiring – the format is a little different to Storybandit, in that #200WT offers two prompts per month, the submission period running flexibly from the first day to the last, with a collection posted every Tuesday. Every prompt so far has been amazing, and again, stand by to have your breath stolen if and when you visit the site.
Below are some of my own flash fiction pieces – a few I owe to Storybandit, a couple inspired by the @200WordTuesdays prompts, and a handful of other sources. Where possible, I’ve prefixed the piece with the prompts that helped create them (not the ones in bold text), and hopefully, if you’ve never visited the sites or pages I’ve mentioned, you’ll take a look. Read some magnificent flash fiction and maybe write your own. I’d heartily recommend it, so drop in on them, grab yourself a prompt, get creative and get flashing!
She’d been uncomfortable with the price tag of the 3D printer, but her anger outweighed the cost. She already had the books, bequeathed by her grandmother, and with a sweet irony the lighter had been one that John had abandoned in the house when he left. She wasn’t sure the spell had worked until she saw the black clouds around his face, heard the noise of screaming onlookers sickened by her former boyfriend bursting into flames.
She walked away, tossing the lighter and the smouldering paper doll into the gutter.
Voodoo in the 21st century. Her grandmother would be proud.
* * *
(Prompt: 199 w. Include the words unsullied, bluebonnet, immigrant, action figure, peach)
I’d never seen the girl before tonight, but I imagined that she had never looked more beautiful. She craned her neck to look up at me, her breath a stutter of frosty, wordless speech bubbles, her wide eyes the same vibrant hue as the fields of bluebonnet in which I’d played as a boy. Her pale, peach soft skin looked perfect in the white dazzling glare of the headlights, unsullied by years or toil or heartbreak. The sight of her, of her stifled beauty, filled me with a kind of awed dread, as if everything she’d seen in those last moments was bleeding through the cracks in my eyes, as if everything she’d felt was stealing into my heart like a strange immigrant emotion that was here to stay. A heartbeat and a lifetime ago, she had appeared from nowhere it seemed, growing suddenly huge through the windscreen, but she looked so small now, her hand tiny in mine, like she was some action figure that a child her age might have dropped in the road where she lay and I sat waiting for her to die.
My tears fell into her eyes as the ambulance crested the hill.
* * *
(Prompt: 99w. Use the opening line, “These blueprints are wrong,” she said.)
“These blueprints are wrong,” she said.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. It had been a long night. “How so?”
She pointed at the unrolled parchment. Everywhere, the clamour of the workshop went on. They were running out of time.
“There’s a broken circuit, here.” She said. “That’s why we have the flickering red light.”
He peered at the plans, frowning. He loved her, but hated it when she spotted his mistakes.
“I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he muttered, shrugging on his scarlet overcoat. Behind him, the robo-reindeer stamped impatient hooves.
“Rudolph can live with it for one night.”
* * *
(Prompt: 199w. Use the opening line, “Oh! You scared me. I didn’t hear you. Did you sneak up on me?”)
“Oh! You scared me. I didn’t hear you. Did you sneak up on me?”
I laughed gently at her surprised eyes. “Sorry.” I glanced at the TV, a screen full of police cars in the rain. “What are you watching?”
“They think they’ve got him,” she said. “The Actor. I thought you’d be interested, seeing how you’re his biggest fan.”
“Serial killers don’t have fans.” I raised the volume. “I’m just intrigued.”
The news report recounted the case. He’d gained the nickname of The Actor because each of his strangled victims had been the leading lady in on play or another, athough tonight it seemed as though his luck had run out. One of his leading ladies had blown his brains out.
I started towards my room.
“You’re not watching it?” she said. “I thought -”
“I’ll catch it later,” I said. “I have to go to work.”
Alone, I flicked through the scrapbook of newspaper cuttings, the glowing reviews of his many murders. The Actor wouldn’t be on stage tonight, but that was okay, I thought as I removed the rope from beneath my bed.
I knew the script by heart, and was more than ready to understudy.
* * *
(Prompt: 99w. Include the words peter, custom, incense, abdication, malicious)
She watched the tiny flame of the incense peter out, inhaling the curl of aromatic smoke as it smouldered. He’d be here soon. She’d open the door and they’d kiss, something that had become more of a custom than a pleasure of late. It wasn’t his fault. He’d always treated her like a Queen, and tonight would be no malicious abdication. She would be kind.
The doorbell rang. She didn’t hurry, in case he should misinterpret her eagerness to see him, but when she opened the door and saw the two solemn faced policemen, she wished she’d moved faster.
* * *
They said it was an accident, and I believed them, although that wasn’t going to help me unravel my poor dog from beneath the wheels of their car.
‘We haven’t been drinking, I swear!’ the girl kept saying, her words floating towards me on a tide of stale beer. The driver said nothing for a few minutes. He just stood with his face slack in the headlights, his glassy gaze flicking between the bloody, dented grille of his vehicle and the tangle of black fur and exposed meat hugging the road beneath it.
‘I tried to brake,’ he said finally. ‘But I just … froze. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ He turned his bloodshot eyes to me. ‘What was that thing?’
‘My dog.’ I told him, reaching inside my jacket for the knife tucked into my belt. ‘You broke him, and now you have to help fix him.’
I remember how their eyes widened when they saw the blade.
My dog is on the mend now, even though I had to amputate some of him to get him out from under the wheels. The man and the girl helped to fix him up, though. He’s kind of clumsy with the hand instead of his paw, and he’s only got one of his own heads left, but I can see him getting used to seeing through their eyes, and barking through their mouths.
‘Good boy, Cerberus,’ I like to say to him. ‘Good dog.’
* * *
(Prompt: 99w. Use the opening line, “The baby was screaming again.”)
The baby was screaming again.
There had been clamour all around him, the rustle of scrubs, the clatter of slick instruments returned to metal trays. The voices of the medical staff, calm and reassuring to him and Sophie, low and urgent to each other. Sophie’s breath, frayed and wheezing, muffled by the misted plastic of the oxygen mask.
Yes, there had been clamour, but in all of that it was the missing sound that terrified them both. The cry that had stopped. Sophie’s damp, shaking hand squeezed his fingers into a bloodless bundle.
Then the baby was screaming again.
* * *
(Prompt: 200w. “Broken Worlds”)
The world felt broken without her, like he was experiencing everything through a television that, like his hopes, had seen better days. The images rolled, ghostly and forever flickering, the contrast dialled down so that everything in sight was bled of its colour, its vibrancy, its life.
The speakers were muted, crackling into activity only when there was a song he didn’t want to hear again, or a nearby voice that reminded him of hers. Even the static seemed to whisper her name.
Sometimes, he would try to think of other things, try to change the channel to something he liked, but the TV had a mind and a mission of its own, it seemed, and always sifted through the frequencies of his memory to show him something he didn’t want to see, a happy time that would make him sad. The pictures were blurred and lo-res, but the hurt was unquestionable High Definition, until one day, he came to a decision.
The pills spilled out onto the table in front of him, a boxful of brightly coloured Off buttons. He swallowed all of them one by one and closed his eyes, waiting for the screen to fade to black.
* * *
(Prompt: 200w. “Inky-Red”)
She knew the other kids wondered about the red pen she always kept with her, but she’d never tell. They wondered about the long sleeves in summer, but she’d never tell about them either. No-one had ever seen her write with it, and anyway, students weren’t allowed to use felt-pens in their notebooks, lest the ink bleed through to the other side of the page.
Because they’d never seen her use it, people presumed that it was the same pen throughout the term, and she’d never tell them that it was a different one maybe every two weeks. Her brother had bought them for her, or more accurately he’d bought as many packs of felt-pens as he could find and afford, and extracted all of the red ones to give to her. The other colours were left to gather dust beneath his bed.
A Distraction Technique, the counsellor called it. Sensory or visual input to drive away the urges to hurt herself. She’d never tell the other kids about how, beneath those long sleeves, red ink stained the places between old scars, and she’d never tell them about how, as secrets went, she thought it the best she’d ever had.
* * *
(Prompt: 99w. Use the ending, “We would need to burn that couch.”)
The screams died with the flames, but black smoke still curled from the lip of the metal trashcan.
It was all Bert’s fault, him and his terrible handwriting. But I’d misread the last word, and I’d poured the petrol and I’d lit the match, so of course he wouldn’t see it that way.
Yes, I’d screwed up, but Bert and I still had a job to do. The apartment was infested, and, Oscar’s incineration aside, we had to torch Big Bird’s furniture before the whole of Sesame Street was overrun with bugs.
We would need to burn that couch.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading!