Deus Ex Machina

Time for a grumpy post. I’ve read some genuinely talented flash fiction online and I’ve read a lot more that, while not likely to set the world fire, have still entertained me for a few minutes and left me with something to think about.

And of course by law of averages, there’s always going to be a few that aren’t up to par – maybe even some of mine. I usually don’t mind these either – the vast majority of people writing flash fiction are doing so as a training exercise, slowly building and improving their writing and story telling abilities, so of course they’re not all going to be winners and there’s usually some redeeming element.

There should be a beginning, a middle and an end

But recently I’ve come across a few pieces of short fiction that have been commiting that most cardinal of writing sins – deus ex machina. Now we all know that in the world of novels and movies, this is unforgivable – you simply can’t bring your audience all the way through your story just to cheat them at the end. So why should it any more acceptable for flash fiction?

I’m talking about the pieces that spend three of four paragraphs describing someone waking up in some terrifying, yet ambiguous, situation – the narrator is frozen or trapped or think that they’re dying. Great detail and plenty of adjectives are used to convey these feelings of fear and confusion only for the final sentence to then read something along the lines of “but then the alarm went off, I hate Mondays”.


This is not on.

If you’re doing this then you have a fundamentally flawed concept of what flash fiction is about. Flash fiction is just a short story, only shorter. It is not a segment of a larger story with the rest chopped off, it is in itself a self-contained narrative. There should be a beginning, a middle and an end and these should hang together properly. Or alternatively your piece of flash fiction could simply be a descriptive piece, painting a picture of a place or a time and taking the reader there – again this is completely acceptable as there is no attempt at a plot rather trying to bang a witty surprise on the end.

So come on folks – try a little harder please. How about instead of the alarm going off and ending the nightmare, the hero realises that they have in deed been kidnapped and drugged and as the story ends, the door to the basement creaks open as the masked killer enters…

Title image courtesy yarhargoat

Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 6:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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