Flash fiction is by no means a new genre of writing, but it’s getting more well known as the years go by. Let’s explore what flash fiction is and what it isn’t, and how it can improve your writing skills and expand your writing horizons.
Flash Fiction is a self-contained story of 300–1,000 words. (Some wordsmiths let you have up to 2,000 words.) It’s a complete story in miniature. It isn’t a scene, or even a chapter in a book, nor is it a cliffhanger meant to entice you to “buy the book.” There is no book; it’s just a story.
Flash fiction is fun. I tried my hand at it, and it was a nice break from the type of writing I usually do. I certainly felt less pressure knowing that I could end the piece after a couple hundred words.
Flash fiction can, however, be your starting point to longer writing pieces. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to future characters and situations for a book you have in mind to write. As an example, the novel Happy All the Time, by Laurie Colwin, emerged from several short stories: “The Girl with the Green Harlequin Glasses,” “Late Romantic,” and “Passion and Effect.” The short stories were first published in magazines and in one of Colwin’s books of short stories.
Advantages of writing flash fiction
- It will make you a better writer. Writers need to write, right? Exploring a new genre will sharpen your skills and expand you horizons, two important goals every writer needs to have.
- It will keep you on your toes. If you have only 500 words, you will need to be focused on what you want to say and organized so you can say it clearly and succinctly.
- It’s quick. If you want to produce a standalone piece but have a limited amount of time, flash fiction is a great option.
- You can use it as a jumping off point for a longer piece. Perhaps you have an idea for a full-length book and want to play around with a few characters and a conflict or two before you dive in (this also applies to nonfiction). Creating flash fiction affords you a chance to see if you idea could work, without a gigantic commitment of time.
The elements of flash fiction
Since flash fiction is a proper story, it needs the same elements as one, namely:
- Developed characters
- Conflict and resolution
- A beginning, a middle, and an end
Flash fiction is a marvelous opportunity to distill these and other writing techniques into no more than 1,000 words.
In flash fiction, you will need more Show than Tell. You don’t have room to do a lot of Telling. You do need to describe the scene – and generally, flash fiction stories take place in one scene and in one setting – so you might have to do some Telling, but economy of words is essential. For instance, “The room’s pine walls, gray floor, and bright yellow accents reflected its owner’s eclectic tastes.” would not work in flash fiction. You need write only what is essential to the story. How about the following:
“The bright yellow toss pillows saved the dim room from being depressing, as my mother’s red lipstick sweetened her appearance in curlers and a stained bathrobe.”
Here, you’ve killed two birds with one stone, describing the setting and giving insight into a character or two. And notice I wasn’t overly dramatic; you don’t necessarily need drama to get your point across succinctly.
Showing will help you cut to the core of the flash fiction story, as you describe the effect instead of the cause.
In flash fiction, the protagonist doesn’t need to go through a whole series of tests and come out a changed person at the end, but he or she does need some depth. So do the rest of the characters. You will want to have a minimum number of characters in your story, say 1 to 5 (probably 3 is ideal). They will probably all be major characters; there’s no room for supporting actors or marginal walk-ons. Use description, dialogue, and perhaps a bit of backstory to flesh out your characters’ personalities and motivations. Here’s an example of a man describing his mother:
She came toward me, smiling, as if the incident hadn’t happened just a year ago. I hated her gravelly cigarette voice. As I looked at her copper hair, I noticed that the only thing that wasn’t artificial about her was her gray roots.
This paragraph packs a powerful punch. It tells us that there is a grown child who has an issue with his mother, probably from way back. And something happened the previous year which soured the relationship even further.
Even one sentence can tell a lot:
- It was a relief to get on the plane, away from her fifth grader’s teacher, principal, and therapist.
- She rolled her eyes in that I-can’t-believe-I-got-him-as-a-father way he had grown used to since she hit puberty.
In the above two examples, we don’t know much, but we know enough to figure out a few things.
In the first sentence, we know that
- the woman described is a mother
- she is weary
- she has a young son
- her son is troubled
- she is going on a trip
In the second example, we know that
- there is a father and a teenage daughter
- the daughter is acting in an age-appropriate manner
- the father said or did something the daughter didn’t like
In flash fiction, less is more.
Conflict and resolution
Most writing pundits tell you to begin your flash fiction story with the conflict, or the “flash.” No time to dawdle and steer your reader in bit by bit. (This is not a bad idea for longer stories as well, sometimes.) Nail the problem in the first paragraph, and resolve it by the last.
This means industrial-strength words, descriptions that do double duty, and the use of metaphor, analogy, and simile to convey complex themes. Dialogue is useful also.
This doesn’t mean you need adverbs; use busy nouns and verbs instead of plain-Jane ones. (Get my Industrial-Strength Words Cheat Sheet here.)
Here are a few impactful words and phrases that could emphasize conflict in flash fiction:
- I’d never go out with a man who wears ballet tights and says “Indubitably.”
- Maryanne’s temper was the scourge of her group therapy.
- My father was more of a figurehead than the actual boss of the family.
- One belittling look, one raised eyebrow, dissolved Nancy’s confidence.
And here are a few examples using the metaphor/analogy/simile technique:
- I jumped on my attacker like a tiger on a piece of raw meat.
- George’s political leanings were slightly to the right of Attila the Hun.
- Was I worried? Think of Voldemort with just one horcrux left.
A beginning, and middle, and an end
Since flash fiction opens with the lightning bolt, how do you navigate a beginning, a middle, and an end?
Think of the conflict as the beginning. Use the conflict to introduce the players; if you are writing about a nervous man, can he stutter? Can you evoke an overbearing mother-in-law with a bit of colorful dialogue? Try to also describe the setting in the beginning.
Develop your characters and bring the conflict to a head in the main body of the story. But do it in a few hundred words and a few paragraphs instead of several pages (as in a “real” short story) or chapters (as in a book). You can leave out some facts, hint at others. With careful word placement the reader can figure it out for him- or herself. Remember to distill it down to the essence. Here’s an example:
“Guess what, Mom, Aurora had her first meeting with her parole officer today, and she’s been sober for over a month.”
Here we know that
- Aurora has been in jail
- she’s got a drinking problem
- a mother and child are in the story
Do we need to know who this “mother” is? Do we need to know why Aurora was in jail? Could it have been related to her drinking, e.g., a DUI?
Assuming this is a flash fiction story, let’s say that the only relevant information we need to know is that Aurora was in jail and is now out, and that she has a drinking problem. None of the questions I proposed above need to be answered. Her stint in jail does not need to be described, nor does her offense. In a longer piece, you could devote a whole scene or chapter to each of these issues.
As for the end of your flash fiction story, you can do that in one paragraph, or even in one sentence. No need for rehashing all the gory details, writing pages and pages of the resolution and “postmortem.”
Flash fiction for the masses
Authors of longer pieces: Have you noticed that everything we’ve explored about flash fiction can be applied to “regular” writing as well? All stories must have a setting, characters, conflict, and a structured progression. Think of flash fiction as “writing in a box.”
Nonfiction afficionados: Flash writing can be rewarding for you, too. Many times you need to create a short piece on a person, place, or thing. If you employ flash fiction principles, your brief article or blurb will be comprehensive as well as fun to read.
Memoirists: Think of each piece of your life’s tapestry as an opportunity to use flash fiction. Each vignette you write will sparkle, and won’t leave readers out in the cold, wondering what happened in the end.
I challenge each and every one of you to write a 350- to 700-word piece of flash fiction (or flash nonfiction) today. Email me the story, and I’ll pick a few to be showcased on my Writer’s Clinic page.
And don’t forget the free Flash Fiction Checklist!