Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled, read the original story first. (And subscribe to support the magazine.)
How the Damned Live On
Asimov’s. December 2016
This is a very short piece (under 900 words) about futility and fatalism. Nothing works out for the narrator, the captain, the crabs, or the giant talking spider.
Actually, the giant talking spider seems to be the only one who doesn’t feel trapped, because she doesn’t sense time the way “normal” people do.
I’m assuming the futility of existence is the theme, because that’s my gut reaction to the piece. It is never stated, but hinted at over and over again. It invades the narrator’s dreams. Their meager belongings are stolen. Cooks don’t trust food supplies. The Muslim cannot locate Mecca. Charts are useless, as well as the sextant. You get the idea.
Exercise: Explore ways to express your theme
Once you have the theme of your story, extrapolate all the different ways you could talk about that theme. The classic Truby example is Hamlet. The theme of Revenge for a Murdered Father supplies both the main plot and the secondary plot, and contrasts how they go about it: Hamlet dithers and checks his sources. Laertes goes for Hamlet without thinking.
The other way to explore the theme is to write up a list of pithy sayings about your topic: There is nothing so futile as a bunch of baby crabs trying to escape the surf. There is nothing so futile as navigating by foreign stars. There is nothing so futile as living when you are told exactly how you are going to die.
If you get enough of these, you can decorate your story with several thematic ideas without ever having to be blunt about it.
Flash Fiction is a Joke
The elements that make a good joke make a good flash piece. The final punch at the end should give the reader a sense of what everything was about (and being short it is all still in the memory) and what is going to happen next. The final punch should allow several thoughts to explode in the reader’s mind. The final punch should have maximum effect on the reader, almost as if there were more story to tell, but of course there isn’t.
A joke is supposed to make the audience laugh or groan, but flash fiction is supposed to make readers react with thoughts and emotions. I wish I knew how to do that. My only successful 1,000-word story doesn’t qualify under these rules.