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The Takeaway

I like a takeaway even in the shortest flash fiction or poem. It can be a tidbit of wisdom, a message, a challenge, or something that makes me question a belief or opinion. It can shine a  bright light on a dark corner or reveal a horror. It can uplift and inspire. It can make me sigh, “Oh, yes!” or shout, “Oh, hell no!”

I know. I know. Art is art. There is no one definition. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. A single blot of color on a canvas can be considered a masterpiece.

I'll be honest. My tastes are far too pedestrian for that. I like being able to easily identify what I’m supposed to be viewing. I prefer paintings that tell me a story, draw me in, lead me down shadowed wooded paths, toss me on churning white crests in an ocean struck with lightening, or a pierce me with a portrait’s stare that seems to follow my every move.

I have trouble connecting with short stories or flash fiction when they lack definition. A short story can be a slice of life vignette. It can examine one moment in time with laser-locked focus. Occasionally the language is so mesmerizing, I’ll read it anyway, even if the action goes nowhere. That is a rare occurrence. I usually thumb past after a few sentences or paragraphs or skim read it. If I get to the end and there was no takeaway, I turn the final page with a sour aftertaste.

My point is this: you can wax lyrical about anything you like in any way you like. Your words can be a blot of color on a piece of paper. You might engage a few readers along the way. But, by and large, story structure has a purpose. It provides an outline so your reader knows what she is supposed to be viewing. It insists that your ramblings have a point, preferably one that  skewers the reader to gain her attention.


Dick is searching for meaning. Your verbal camera follows him to a street-side cafe. He sits at an outdoor table and stares at the Seine over his mocha latte. He downs the chocolate coffee concoction and watches people go by, wondering who they are, and where they are headed. He stands and shuffles down the avenue, aimless, adrift.

I'm snoring at this point. Thematically, Dick watches life go by but isn't participating. By the end of the piece, Dick has not come to a conclusion, changed his life, or made his peace. He remains in a rut and I'm left feeling that my time has been wasted.

Let's examine what happens if you give the story a takeaway.


Dick is depressed. (Yawn).

Dick is depressed because his wife died. (It happens.) 

Dick is depressed because his wife died and he keeps seeing her ghost.  (Prickle of interest).

Dick is depressed because his wife died and he keeps seeing her ghost. He realizes she is enjoying the netherworld with her demon lover and vows to destroy them both. (Wow, did not see that coming. Please tell me more!).

Which version will you remember?

Engage the reader’s curiosity by giving the character something to aim for, no matter how minuscule, and make the reader question whether he will/could/should achieve it. This can be done in a three line haiku or a five-hundred-page novel. It can flow along the slow lane of Literary or the creepy crawl of Horror.

The takeaway? Offer your audience something to remember so they remember you and look forward to your next work with anticipation.

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