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Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have’ by Ken Elkes, a story which reveals as much about its character through the things left unsaid, as through the words on the page.
One of the most difficult challenges a writer can face when writing a short story is achieving the right balance between knowing what to reveal to the reader and understanding when it is best to leave things to their imaginations.
‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have’ is a story which deftly accomplishes this delicate balancing act.
From the beginning we understand we are dealing with a character full of regret. The title alone indicates as much.
And indeed, on one level, the story appears to be a straightforward list of events, narrated in an almost matter-of-fact tone of voice.
Here is a man who can evaluate his life within a series of could haves, would haves and should haves.
Dig deeper however and the story reveals many layers of self-doubt and melancholy.
The what-ifs, creating space for the reader to ponder some alternate scenarios.
‘You could have cried at the birth.’
‘You could have gone to Aqualand’
‘You would have said to your wife that children are maps’
‘You should have remembered how Friday is bad for lovers’
Each one of these statements elicits a sort of call and response. The writer poses a question, and we, the readers are left to fill in the reply.
You could have cried. So why didn’t you?
You could have gone to Aqualand. But Aqualand seems more a dreamed of destination, a fantasy place. You could have gone. Could you? Really? What was it that stopped you?
You would have said children are maps, but the conversation never came to pass, because …?
Because perhaps all these could haves and would haves relate to some longed-for existence which never came to pass?
Providing such space within a story places demands upon the reader. We have to take those doubts and regrets and contemplate them ourselves. Imagine the many reasons why a man could come to think such things.
In this way we are drawn deeper into the story because we have to bring something of our own narrative to the tale.
It’s not an easy demand to place upon the reader, but when it works, it can bring a story to life in ways a more directed type of storytelling cannot.
But there is a twist in this little tale. The final lines bring a revelation that is less ambiguous.
‘You should have remembered Friday is bad for lovers.’
Now we are faced with the consequence of those missed opportunities – those could haves and would haves that never came to pass.
There is never any explicit mention of the narrator’s relationship problems, no flashbacks or memories, no dialogue to confirm or explain things to us.
Just this simple understanding that, for whatever reason, events have brought us to this moment.
He makes no judgement of himself, gives only one side of the story for us to contemplate, then steps aside and allows us to make of him what we will.
And what is it we are to think of him? Should we be sympathetic? Angry? Judgmental?
Or should we sit with him in the car and watch as the storm draws near from the East? Bringing with it something we can only imagine.
A masterful and complex story which reveals more and more with every reading.
Interview with Ken Elkes
Jen: The character in ‘Could Have, Would Have Should Have’ is quite difficult to fathom. He seems to sit somewhere between regret and acceptance? Would you say this is a correct reading of him? What do you think of him?
Ken: Good characters are much like real people – flawed, sometimes contradictory, complex. Even within the limitations of flash fiction, I think a writer should aim to evoke such depth in a story.
As for this character, there is quite a lot we can tease out from the text – he is likely to be early middle age, probably well-educated from the language he uses, married, now having an affair – hence the ‘spare phone’.
And then, from what he says and how he says it, the reader might conclude he is sensitive, has a vivid imagination, feels thwarted because he cannot be a father, is conflicted about the choices he has subsequently made and knows that the difference between his dreams and reality has cast a long shadow over his life.
I think this makes him someone existing in a liminal place – caught somewhere between where his life might have gone and where it actually is. Maybe that’s why he feels difficult to pin down.
Jen: I really enjoy stories such as this, where there is a lot of room for the reader to imagine what has happened to bring a character to this specific point in their life. Did you set out with this in mind when you wrote it?
Ken: My admiration of writers like Hemingway and Carver (among many others), and my own preferences about not being fed every detail, means I’m happy to trust readers to use their own imagination and critical skills.
But it is also a product of how I write flash fiction, which tends to be in one sitting, creating the story from a set of prompts. The process – which I learned while I was part of the online writing school Alex Keegan’s Bootcamp – involves playing with the prompts until you find a voice, a tone for the piece, a sense of character and theme.
Then, at the moment when it feels like it’s coming to the boil, I begin to write, fast, without thinking. Then comes the editing – taking away the fluff without excising the heart. I think the whole process from blank page to finished story took a couple of hours.
So yes, readers perhaps need to do some work, but hopefully that is a good thing, rather than a negative.
Jen: The language is quite spare in this story, but the use of a conditional tense and the idea that there is this ‘unreal past’ lurking within the story makes it very complex. How deliberate was this use of language?
Ken: This is tricky to answer, because the way a flash turns out is partly deliberate, but mostly sub-conscious.
So, on a conscious level I knew that ‘could have, would have, should have’ were collectively called the Modals of Lost Opportunity (kudos to whoever came up with that!) which suggested the melancholy tone of the piece.
I also, consciously, realised I could use them to structure the story. From ‘could have’ (which to me is all about possibility), through to ‘should have’, which has more negative connotations.
As for the rest – the tone of the language, the way the first two thirds of the story is about a past that never actually happened (yet from this the reader can deduce something of what did really happen) and then a final third which deals with the fall-out of that fantasy/reality, well, that all came out of some dark corner of my brain.
As for sparseness of language, that is part of my general writing style (though hopefully I can ‘do lyrical’ in the right circumstances).
Jen: I was surprised by the emotional kick within this story. It was only on the second reading that I found myself imagining this man and grappling with the could haves, would haves and should haves that he ponders. The layers within the story only surface after a few readings, nothing is immediately obvious and as a reader you really have to work to get to the heart of things. Is this your usual style of writing?
Ken: Yes, if I am doing it correctly. I think a decent short story or flash fiction will pull a reader quickly into the world of the story, makes them forget they are reading and give them a sense of something that resonates, even if they can’t quite fathom exactly what it is.
But then if they want to read more critically, they can find depth, subtlety and layering.
It’s a bit like listening to a great song for the first time. Something about it makes your ears prick up, so you decide to listen again, put your headphones on, concentrate more. Then you hear that great bassline, a guitar riff that hooks you, a splash of keyboards or brass in the background that just lift the whole thing…
I guess I’m not a fan of stories which direct the reader and where too much is explained. For me, that style of writing produces wooden characters, an over-constructed feel to the story and themes that tend to be generalized and have less impact.
Jen: Finally, you’ve read what we like about ‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have’ what do you like about it?
Ken: I think when you write a story, you are so in among the lungs and bowels and heart of, that you know you will never see it the same way as a reader.
So what I like about it is the satisfaction of having created a story that seems to work, is decently crafted and has enough emotional depth and resonance to cause a reaction in readers.
Thanks to Ken for talking to us. Why not take a read of ‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have‘ and let us know what you think.