This week, I’m talking all about how to write flash fiction because, let’s face it, instant gratification reigns supreme in today’s fast-paced society. Writing is no different. E-readers are replacing traditional books (some e-books even use short video clips throughout the story), and narrative summary, back-story, and omniscient POV are “four-letter words” in the writing industry now. So that’s where we are. Sharp. Hard-hitting. To the point. In and out, nobody gets hurt. Enter: Flash Fiction. No wonder flash fiction has never been hotter! Before I get into how to go about writing this special type of story, let’s first explore what flash fiction is not. It’s not a part of a bigger story, or a synopsis for a novel, or a short story trimmed down to fit the 1,000-word maximum. It doesn’t cause brain-strain with convoluted point-of-views and time shifts. And it absolutely, unequivocally, downright does not require the reader to go back and read the story again to understand what the heck is going on.
Now let’s establish what flash fiction actually is. Flash fiction goes by many names: microfiction, sudden fiction, short-short, postcard fiction, etc. Its word count runs anywhere from 50 words to over a thousand words, generally capping out at 1500. Any number of famous writers have written flash, including Langston Hughes, Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, Jamaica Kincaid, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Amy Hempel, and Margaret Atwood, to name only a few.
Flash fiction must have a beginning, middle and an end. For the story to have resonance there must be some change in action or motivation of the protagonist. The reader needs to feel that there is some kind of plot resolution by the end of the story. Many people say that writing to such a tight brief is difficult. It is certainly a different skill to that of writing a novel. Flash fiction requires brevity. An author must convey character and plot in a succinct manner and make every word count.
One of the most famous examples of flash fiction is a six-word story usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway (although some say it predates him).
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
He is said to have penned this six-word short story in response to a bet. It may have been inspired by news published in The Spokane Press on May 16th 1910 entitled "Tragedy of Baby's Death Revealed in Sale of Clothes." The words “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” engages your emotions because of the sadness implicit behind the final words. You are left wondering why a person had to sell the baby's shoes. Perhaps a baby was still-born or maybe a woman had an abortion after a rape? There are endless possibilities once you start to think about it.
Okay, enough with the backstory of flash fiction…let’s get to the writing tips!
You’d Better Have One Heck of a Hook
Flash fic readers have busy lives and short attention spans, so your first task is to convince them your story is worth their time.
Take Out All Unnecessary Words
Practice on Twitter. I kid you not, and I speak from experience. Nothing shows you how to whittle down a sentence to the key elements better than Twitter. Pretend you only get one single solitary tweet to get the idea across. Can you do it?
Make Sure You Have a Character Arc
There’s nothing more disappointing than a character who doesn’t grow/change/learn. Sure, it happens, but does it make a fulfilling experience? Not particularly.
Put Your Characters in Conflict with Someone or Something
Still on the topic of characters, you have less than 1,000 words to create a character, to mess with her so she feels totally wrecked, and then to resolve the problem one way or another. Not all conflict has to be resolved for the character’s benefit. In flash fiction, you don’t have to have a happy ending, but there needs to be some sort of problem or issue for your character to face, otherwise we’re bored. In other words, something has to happen!
Satisfy Your Reader
“To be continued” works for sitcoms and comic books, but not for flash fiction. In and out, remember? Wrap your story up so tight and so fast that your reader can’t help but love you for it.
With that in mind, be creative. Kill your MC in the first line. Have a grandma tell about the time she stubbed her toe if you want, but for your readers’ sake please make it interesting.
Start the Story in the Middle of The Action
You don’t want to waste valuable words setting up a complex backstory or giving a wordy exposition on the scenery surrounding your character. Begin your story at a moment of change; a crucial moment to the narrative. Focus on showing your readers the tension of the scene, rather than wasting words describing why characters are acting a specific way. Your flash-fiction piece should arrive at its main narrative or plot conflict in the first paragraph—or even the first sentence. Don’t leave the readers in suspense; you don’t have words to spare. For example, open with something like: “The car barreling down the road did not stop at the light but crashed into the side of a parked van."
Show Your Readers Only The “Tip of the Iceberg”
By starting in the middle, you’ll indicate to readers that much of the story has already happened before your flash-fiction begins, and that the story may continue after your story concludes. Allow some of the action to occur off of the page, so that you can focus on one important scene and idea. his means that literary devices such as foreshadowing and tone will be important in your flash piece. By focusing on a single scene in a plot or conflict, you’ll allow readers to imagine the rest of the narrative for themselves.
Focus on the Last Line
Although you shouldn’t necessarily have a definite “ending” in your last line—in a flash piece this may feel contrived or unnecessary—do focus on crafting a final line that sticks in your reader’s mind. It should take the story in an unexpected direction or take the reader to a new place that encourages readers to think about the story and its significance. Think of the last line less like a conventional “ending” and more like a surprise or shock to the reader. You don’t necessarily need a confusing or obscure ending (unless you want one), but it can help to have an enigmatic or evocative last line.
Read Many Examples of Flash Fiction
As with any type of literary writing, it’s challenging—some would say impossible—to write effective flash fiction if you’re not immersed in the genre already. Find a published flash-fiction collection at your local bookstore, or an online journal that specializes in publishing flash fiction. Read stories, and note their approach to narrative, plot, characters, and economy of language.
Using Common Knowledge is Helpful – Reference Tell Tale Facts If your story is part of something that is commonly known than references will save you time and words. Refer to historical events, location, etc. For example: say your story takes place in 1920s, a single word like prohibition or a phrase like economic boom, would reference that entire era. By doing this you give the reader a load of background information in a single sentence.
So, to sum everything up, flash fiction is short. It can be as brief as 6 words, or as long as 1,500. Additionally, just as with any other type of writing, character development is important. The character must engage the reader's emotions and it is still crucial for them to experience a change or epiphany. Finally, with flash fiction the ending should be unexpected and not predictable. Ultimately, I find the discipline of writing very short fiction requires me to concentrate on the heart of the story in order to reduce it to its bare bones.
A Sample of My Own Flash Fiction
On that note, you can find my available titles at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most major online retailers. Additionally, if you like my blog, then subscribe already! You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and of course Twitter @d_vanalst. Until next week, happy writing everyone!