TTT – How to Write Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is easy. Flash fiction is hard. And both of these statements are true.

Before January, I’d never written a piece of flash, didn’t even know what it was. But once I started, I was hooked. It got its little spines into my noodle and wouldn’t let go…okay, that’s not true. It lets go every once in a while and, when it does, you’ll find me scrabbling around the floor trying to put it back in (what can I say? I miss the little guy when he’s gone).

Since then, I’ve been involved in numerous flash fiction challenges, most notably Thain in Vain’s weekly prompt, and I wrote (shameless plug alert) A Dictionary of Tales, twenty-six short tales of myths, monsters and legends which you should really check out.

Anyway, I digress. It’s on with the show…

What is flash fiction?

Flash fiction is a literary term used to classify any complete story of 1,000 words or less (some argue 2,000). To be true flash fiction, and not just a snapshot or short scene, a story must have all the classic elements: a protagonist, conflict, and resolution. With an extremely limited word count, some of these elements may likely be implied in the narrative.

It is all too often thought of as an easy out by some writers and that its authors lack the discipline, skill, or commitment to tackle longer works. This is (excuse my French) shite…or is it merde? Anyway. Flash is no less important in terms of discovering your capabilities as a writer than is completing your novel. There’s an art to good flash fiction. It is a discipline all of its own and it take a lot of commitment (and a whole heap of editing) to write a story in only 1,000. I find that writers who knock flash fiction often end up with tomes full of excess words (but more on that later).

Tips

1. Know your (word) limits

It pays to keep your intended word limit in mind as you write. If you don’t, you risk telling more of the story than was intended and end up with a more substantial edit than may be strictly necessary. The word count is what makes the work flash fiction and it is all too easy to begin to expand out of control (see K.I.S.S. below).

I usually write to a 500 word limit which, depending on your font/font size, is about one side of typed A4. As the text gets closer and closer to that final line, I know I’m approaching my word limit. This is a helpful guide when it comes to assessing whether or not the story you are trying to tell is suitable for flash.

2. Start in the middle

No piece of flash fiction starts at the beginning. There simply isn’t the room. As its name suggests, flash is a sudden shock, straight into the action with little or no warning. To achieve this, you must think about your story as a whole and assess where in the narrative the action really begins. For example, in Crow, I explored the aspect of the goddess, Morrigan, and a battle she bore witness to. There were many places I could have started (the preparations for battle, the indignity that caused it to be fought, the call to arms of the soldiers). I chose to start after the fighting had already begun, right in the heat of the conflict. Any earlier and I’d have run out of words before I even gotten to the battle, any later and the story would already be over.

The key to good flash fiction is knowing where to start.

3. Leave ’em hanging

Never finish the story. Well, of course you have to finish it but rarely does flash fiction (or even short stories) finish with ‘The End’. Start late and finish early, before the conflict or resolution has fully played out. Make the audience ask “But what happens next?” Flash fiction is as much about what you leave out what you put it.

4. Make every word count

Every word must pull its weight. Flash is not the place excess baggage. Likewise, it is not the place for strings of descriptive adverbs/adjectives. All stories need a few for flavour and to prevent the story from occurring in a vacuum but you don’t have the space to describe every detail. This shouldn’t be limited to adverbs/adjectives either. Ask yourself:

  1. Could I start this story later?
  2. Can I cut that without losing meaning?
  3. Does that word/sentence/paragraph add anything to the story?

If you answered “yes” to questions 1 or 2, or “no” to question 3, then your word rationing needs looking at.

5. Write long, edit short

The story comes first and, as with all first drafts, what you’ve written is likely to need severe pruning. Concentrate on getting the words down first, don’t worry about the word count but do try to bear it in mind. Once that’s done: cut, cut, cut. Ask yourselves the questions above and those we discussed in a previous post on editing.

Remember: not all stories can be told in flash fiction.

6. K.I.S.S.

That’s right Keep It Simple Stu….sunshine. You haven’t got the room to develop multiple characters and twisting subplots. If you have an idea like that then congratulations, you have the makings of a novel, but these don’t work for flash. Flash rarely has more than one or two characters and usually only one plot strand (others may be implied). You’ll drive yourself mad doing it any other way. So, do your noggin a favour and K.I.S.S.

7. Write often

Flash fiction is a perfect medium in which to discover your ‘voice’. Because flash can be written in a comparatively short space of time, it is possible to explore many different facets of style, perspective and tense in the same time one writer might take to draft a novel. Do the maths: if a flash fiction story takes a day to write and edit, then it is possible to write thirty in a month (ignore February. It isn’t even a real month anyway). Although it’s possible to write a short novel in 30 days, there is no way you’ll have it edited in that time also. This means that a flash fiction author has the potential to explore twenty-nine different themes in the same time a novelist explores one. Think about it.

I’m going to cast the floor open once again. Does anyone have any tips they would like to add? Any sage advice on crafting flash picked up through experience? I’d also like to hear people’s thoughts on flash fiction. Do you like it? Loathe it? Do you even see the point in it? Comments below, please.

Next week: How flash fiction can help you write your novel.

16 thoughts on “TTT – How to Write Flash Fiction

  1. I’ve been trying to whittle one of my short stories down to flash fiction for about a year, so it’s not easy! But I think it’s such a great discipline for a writer to practice, especially if one tends toward the wordy side. Every word must count in flash fiction, and the more we learn that discipline the more we can apply it to other areas of our writing life.

    1. Some stories aren’t suited to flash fiction but often those that are have been started earlier than they need to be for flash. Many finish late too. I’d look to the beginning and end of your story first when editing. Most words can be shed from there.

  2. I think it’s an interesting style and have wanted to try it for a long time. Most of them seem to be either omnipotent narrators or first person POV. Is this your experience?

    1. There is a significant trend towards those perspectives but my own fiction has covered the range of perspectives including first-person collective, second-person future and third-person fixed. The only thing holding people back is imagination.

  3. I am a terrible K.I.S.S-er. (yes, hahaha). As you well know, my Camp NaNo novella was meant to be a story of no more than 1000 words. My target for Camp NaNo is 25,000. That WAS my first attempt though…

    Apart from that, i love writing flash fiction. It gives me something to share with my friends and family when i tell them i write and they want proof, it gives me something to focus on when i don’t want to get stuck into something big and I believe it has definitely taught me to keep my writing concise and relevant without a load of crazy waffling in the middle.

    Long Live Flash Fiction!

  4. You hit the nail on the head. I’ve had only one attempt at flash fiction that was truly successful, but I’ll keep trying. Maybe next year for the A-Z challenge? That would force it…
    If you don’t mind my asking, do you teach writing? If not, you should.

    1. I don’t teach writing but I do help beginners. I also run workshops with other writers encouraging children to write.

      I have been considering an online beginner’s course.

  5. You always make me laugh – in a good way.
    I think flash fiction is a cool way to get new ideas. You never know what you might come up with. I don’t do it very often though… which is bad, I know.

  6. Flash fiction is great for a writer’s discipline and really helps to weed out all of those superfluous words. Besides, flash fiction is great fun and can really allow a writer’s fun side come out to play. You have a limited number of words to get your point across and it forces you to get to the point,give only as much info as strictly necessary and end with a bang. I think these are skills that all good writers need.

    Long live flash fiction!

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