Using Loops in Flash Fiction

Scott SummersGuides & Lists, On Writing

Using loops to criss-cross a plot is a great way to add reader complexity without overcomplicating plot items for the writer.

Let’s talk for a few minutes about writing loops.  You might have heard about similar techniques, like set-up / pay-off or Chekhov’s Gun, but loops are a little bit different.  Loops are hooks in your writing designed to pull your reader into your story.  There aren’t “the hook” that you see within the first line of your piece.  Neither are they the gun in Act One that has to fire in Act Three. 

Rather, loops are items (places, events, thoughts, objects, plot devices, motifs) that drag your story along.  They keep showing up in the narrative until they reach a point of finality and you, as the writer, close them off.

So, how do they work?

The Law of Loops

There are a lot of ways to talk about loops, but I’m going to make the case that there are two types of loops:  Open and closed.  An open loop is one that your narrative is still exploring.  A closed loop is one that has reached its endpoint.  Everything has come full circle.

But open loops are where the fun is at.  Open loops constantly seek closure and, because readers are curious, it sweeps them along in the process.

Here’s an example of a loop in fiction:

During a round of late-night tabletop gaming, Joy falls in love with Kevin. But Kevin hardly looks her way unless Joy manages to roll big numbers with her dice (open loop). When Joy picks up on that, she not only starts trying (and failing) to roll big, she also starts seeing dice everywhere. They stand out to her. She sees fuzzy dice in the car ahead of her on the way to work. At the game shop, the sounds of dice stand out to her. When her grandmother tragically dies halfway through the story and she’s clearing out the attic, her grandmother’s old, wooden die fall onto the floor. And when she finally decides to replace her worn-out dice with her grandmother’s dice and throws out some big numbers (close loop), Kevin notices and she manages to use that as a connection to get him talking and, finally, win him over.

Open loops like this do two things:

1.  They tease the reader’s curiosity and urge them to continue reading

and

2.  They give the reader a way to reenter the story if they’ve begun to disengage.

Both are powerful reasons to use them in your narrative.

Using Loops in Flash Fiction

1. Loop the start- and endpoints

Loops are applicable in any form of writing, however they really shine in short fiction.  In short stories and flash fiction, loops can be used in fun and interesting ways because of the immediacy of the plot.  Think about it:  In a novel, you’ve got to plan your loops carefully and run several at a time.  It’s a long game of setups and payoffs to get your reader from page 34 to page 340 on the same loops, right?

In flash fiction, you’ve got a limited space and a limited number of words to invoke the same effect.  Because of this, loops can be simple, clearer, and more direct.  If that seems simple enough, great!  Because flash is a great format in which to practice your looping potential.

I tend to use loops in three separate ways for flash fiction:

2. Loop the Plot

In short fiction, a cyclic plot isn’t a terrible idea.  In The Suit, I have my main character — a secret agent — kill another secret agent on behalf of “The Institute” only to be killed by another agent of “The Institute” at the end of the story.  The result effect creates an infinity mirror, where the reader assumes that the first guy who died has done this in the past and, presumably, the agent who kills the main character will have it done to him.

3. Invoke the Rule of Three

Who said you can’t loop with setting? Finish the story in the same place you started, but with one minor difference. In the above example, maybe Joy and Kevin are seated in the same place, playing the same game, and the only difference comes down to the dice on the table. The setting can be identical, but that gives you the ability to stress the differences in the writing that ultimately close the loop.

Though your mileage may very, the Rule of Three (mentioning things three times) works very well in flash fiction. Open your loop, make three mentions of the loop throughout the piece, close the loop. Intersperse those mentions evenly throughout the piece and tie it off. It’s quick, simple, and effective.

Of course, there are a dozen different ways to use open loops in flash fiction, but bottom line: Flash is one of the absolute best places to practice looping and other great linguistic techniques simply because of the brevity and simplicity of the format.

Now, open that loop and get writing!