Every year I’ve read for Flash500, the decision has been harder to make, and this year was no exception; it took me longer than ever to narrow down my selection and I found something to admire in each of the twenty-five pieces on the shortlist.
This year, the element that connected the pieces that spoke to me most was compression.
There were some beautifully-rendered stories with a more traditional beginning-middle-end structure, but the ones that stayed with me most distil their worlds down into sharp specific details that hint at much larger worlds, moods, emotions. By drilling down into a particular moment or series of moments, they hint at much larger stories beyond what’s on the page.
Without further ado, here are my top choices, as well as some shout-outs to other pieces on the shortlist….
An Unspecified Time Between Then and Now
I love the way this flash tells the story of a relationship and loss through the lens of grammar and the teaching of English. The story is divided into three subtitled vignettes, focusing on a particular incident, and reflecting it through the verb tenses and grammatical points that we see or imagine the main character teaching to her students. Though the focus is on a few grammatical points and a couple brief moments in the main character’s life, these three short, nimbly-constructed paragraphs suggest a much larger story of life in a new country, love between speakers of different languages, and various forms of grief.
CCTV Blind Spots
In this piece, a brief moment between a young officer and a mother whose daughter has gone missing serves as the focus for a larger story about the officer himself. The story deftly uses this as a springboard, jumping the reader around in time and place, glimpsing not just this moment but also other missing persons cases, the officer’s future career, and moments in his early fatherhood which motivate this earnest response to this, the first of such cases. The result is a rich character sketch as well as a meditation on parenthood and loss, all in less than 450 words.
This story inhabits an in-between moment between two enormous stories that take place off the page: what happened before, and what will happen later in the day. Through sharp, specific detail, we learn worlds about the relationship between a mother and son, and the fear the mother has about what is before them both. This piece lets the title set the scene and, from there, hones in on small, precise details about the current moment that suggest worlds beyond. The choice of ‘were’ instead of ‘are’ in the third to last sentence is simply devastating.
I would also like to take this opportunity to mention a few other stories that I enjoyed from the shortlist.
Another successful experiment with structure, ‘Nine Charms’ was divided into three sections of three charm types, with the details of a relationship unfurling alongside the narrator’s descriptions of the charms being evoked at different times in their partnership. We get snapshot glimpses of an unravelling, told in an urgent present tense. I enjoyed the tension that builds as the story unfurls.
Too much dialogue can sometimes slow down flash, but in ‘A Shiver in the Blood’, dialogue is at the very heart. I love how the gorgeously rendered voices build not just the characters, but their relationship, the world around them, and the changes that come with the passing of time, largely through snippets of conversation.
‘Shipping Forecast’ tells an age-old tale – the rise and fall of a romantic relationship – through the filter of the shipping forecast. With subheadings such as ‘Irish Sea’, ‘Fair Isle’, ‘Dogger’ and familiar words and phrases from the forecast woven into glimpses of different moments in a couple’s time together (and apart), there is a real playfulness in this storytelling. This is paired with lovely details and a strong voice so that one gets a deep sense of the people and place despite the short word count.
Beyond these pieces, I also really loved the fresh, creative diction in ‘The Dogs are Coming’, the playfulness and pathos in ‘Wombat in August’ (I love that wombat!), the rich sense of time and place in ‘While they wait’, and the storytelling woven into a series of instructions in ‘How to Make a Dad Quilt’.
In some cases, there was very little between what made it to the top of my list and what was close, and I was especially excited to see so many experiments with structure, voice and form in the shortlist. I enjoyed reading every piece, and I hope to see many of them again in print or online in the not-too-distant future, if not in future rounds of Flash500.
Congratulations to the authors of the stories mentioned above, and thank you to everyone who submitted work for making my job so hard this year.
Ingrid Jendrzejewski, November 2022