Flash fiction is easy. Flash fiction is hard. And both of these statements are true.
Before January 2014, 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 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).
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:
- Could I start this story later?
- Can I cut that without losing meaning?
- 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.
Remember: not all stories can be told in flash fiction.
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.
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.
I stumbled on the flash fiction tag the other week and now check it everyday. Read some fantastic pieces and may even give it a whirl myself one day 🙂 xx
I find flash fiction to be a great way of stretching the writing muscles and experimenting. It’s a discipline all and of itself. Self-imposed word limits force us to consider each word carefully rather than allowing us to employ the usual scatter-gun approach (or adverb-rocket launcher) and don’t me started on the benefits it gives when learning to edit longer works…
I find that many so-called writers (read: unpublished) think flash fiction or short stories are lower-tier writing. While it is definitely easier to write a short story, I wouldn’t say it is easy at all. Like your fourth point, you reminded us to make every word count. I think that that’s the most important aspect of flash fiction. Many people tend to be overly enthusiastic in trying to add flair to their writing that they forget that the simpler words can also be used to great effect. One author who can do this well is Alice Munro, my go-to author for short stories. She hardly uses any complex words but you know that her stories are of the highest quality. I hope to be able to publish a book of short stories in the future as well so I’ll be looking out for tips like this 🙂
I love Alice Munro! So glad you mentioned her. She is master of the short form, and I was really happy they awarded the Nobel Prize to a short story writer. If anyone wants to read a story by her: http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/stories-week-2012-2013/red-dress-1946-alice-munro
I’d argue the ‘easiness’ of a short story/FF is in the smaller word count. A full novel is, of course, an intimidating thing for a lot of people. But I’d also argue that short stories or FF pieces are far more difficult to do right. They are excellent for learning to refine our craft, however, as they are the epitome of the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra. As Chris said, less is more; it’s just as often in the things we don’t say.
You’re right in your observation that flash fiction is seen as low-tier writing, but this is not confined to unpublished writers. Many published and sometimes respected authors have expressed a distain for short fiction. I’m of the school of “don’t knock it, ’till you’ve tried it” (graduated 9th with honours in stubbornness) and all I can say to them is that it’s harder than it looks. To me, it is far easier to write a novel than a piece of flash fiction. Anyone (alright, not just anyone) can develop a half-decent character in 100,000 words, but you try doing that in only 500.
I’m glad that you found the post helpful and I hope that you will share some of your short stories with us. Good luck on your book and I wish you all the best.
For the type (and length) of writing I do, I suppose I fall somewhere between flash fiction and short stories. Some of my offerings bleed between the two formats. Personally, I love the idea. It is a perfect way to consume a short, yet evocative story in little chunks amid a chaotic day. It’s a great opportunity to take a break and escape to another world, if for only a few minutes – like a breath of fresh air.
I suppose I should “pick” one format or another, but I honestly don’t feel the need to – right now, at least. If I have a story to tell, I will let the words flow until the story is told without imposing a word limit on myself. Maybe I will take up the challenge to intentionally craft a piece of flash fiction sometime in the future. And if I do, I have the perfect guide to help me along, thanks for sharing!
I think I’m much the same as you. When I start to write a story, I soon get a feel for the correct length of it. I’m a strong believer in allowing the story to dictate whether it will be flash/short/novella…you get the idea. Likewise, if I finish a story with the feeling that I could have told it in fewer words, then I’ll get out the green pen and hack it to pieces. Padding is for girls (and Football Players).
Padding is for girls? Excuse me? I can flash just as well as you can and I need no extra padding!
Okay that didn’t come out the way I intended….honest! 😉
I love flash fiction. Writing super short pieces definitely gave me the confidence to go on and write larger works. I had to start somewhere so i started with flash fiction.
I love flash fiction, and have dabbled in it. There is a skill set that seems to improve my novel writing.
You’ve provided an excellent, comprehensive lesson. I don’t write fiction, but if I did ‘flash’ would suit me because I try to limit my essays and narratives to 700 words. Editing is essential.
I follow a couple of flash fiction writers and admire their ability to think in ways my brain does not!
Thank you. Flash fiction certainly forces you to use the ol’ editing noodle….that and a crowbar.
I’ve only recently tried my hand at flash fiction, thanks to you and your fellow muse, Amanda. I must say, I really enjoyed it. Everything you say about flash fiction applies, I think, to short stories and even poetry, but to a higher degree (because of the compressed space). If the scene if the basic unit of fiction, and I think it is, I’m toying with the idea of using flash fiction to draft a novel, 500-1,000 word mini-scene at a time. Has anyone ever tried that?
You should check out Calum Kerr. He’s written quite a few flash fiction novellas – I believe they’re all on Amazon.
I’ll look into that. Thanks. :~)
I think that the tips above apply to any writing, but certainly to flash fiction. I would (and have) used the same approach to my novels as I have to my flash.
I’m glad you enjoyed the flash fiction Amanda and I started. We really should kick that back off soon….*Glares at Amanda*
Agree with all of those. The one thing I’d add: Read lots of flash fiction. Find a handful of writers whose stories you like and learn from them.
Agreed. Read as many as you can. Read the good ones and read the bad ones. I find that I learn more from the bad writers than the good writers.
Yes, good point. Read the bad stuff. Pin down why it’s bad. I’ve probably learnt more from reading bad stories, as well. And once I think, ‘man, I can write better than that’, I have to go and prove it.
I know that writing flash fiction has helped me become less ‘wordy’ in longer pieces. When you have a limited word count, every word must earn its place within the story.
I would definitely recommend writing flash fiction to any writers who haven’t yet tried it
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