Flash fiction focuses on small but telling moments of life, and every word, every sentence, even the title, matters. A character’s essence is revealed through small hints. Suspense is built by what is left out, letting the reader fill in the gaps. Show only the top 10 percent of your story, using suggestiveness to let the rest be imagined by the reader. Flash fiction stories are usually considered to be less than 1000 words—and as few as six words. They are confined to a single, powerful incident that bears symbolic weight.
The roots of flash fiction go far back in history to parables and fables. Its newfound popularity may have origins in the physical constraints imposed by viewing text on a computer screen without the need for the reader to scroll down. This challenges the writer to use a handful of carefully chosen images or snapshots that convey only enough information to sketch out the central idea and provide a satisfying conclusion.
To get a feel for writing flash fiction write a story of 500 words or so. Then do a second draft, paring down to about 250 words. Then pare that down to 100 words, practising the arts of omission and conciseness. See how the story changes and is even enhanced when you remove things. Chisel the story again and again until its sculpture relies more on its gaps than its words.
Like other stories, flash stories have a beginning, middle and end, and are formed around conflict and character change. Plot is less prominent because the story is wrapped in a single situation. A flash story distills one moment to its essence. Every word, every image, every bit of characterization must be exact, leading to a simple, clear story with few characters and one central conflict. While each flash fiction word must be essential, a good writer will still provide detail, texture and movement.
Flash fiction isn’t so difficult when you consider that most stories we tell in real life are under 500 words. When you are hanging out with friends and sharing an incident or a joke, you want to keep their attention and interest. “Hey, did you hear about…?” You tell it quickly, while they’re still listening. Write flash fiction much as you chat with your friends. And if you long to expand upon your flash fiction story, you can always use it as the kernel, later on, for a short story or even a novel.
Here are some flash fiction pointers to consider:
- The title has to work very hard, as it points to the crisis, moment, or emotion that the story is focused upon.
- Plot reduction: Narrow down to a single small event or idea that, insignificant as it appears on the surface, potentially has great meaning.
- The setting must be presented concisely and clearly, so the reader can immediately identify the situation–and remember to show more than tell. Consider commonplace settings which readers easily recognise and relate to.
- The back story should be brief and be something all readers can relate to.
- Characterization is still important–a defined character with desires/needs and a distinctive voice, facing opposition to those desires.
- The story requires a clear climax and concise resolution.
- Use allusions to provide flow. Historical dates, single names of people or events, widely recognised characters and/or stories all paint clear pictures in the reader’s mind and save words.
- Choose words very carefully. Weed out all adjectives and adverbs, then reinstate only those that give a distinct flavour to the story. Again, show rather than tell.
- Publishing: Flash fiction won’t make you rich. Many journals won’t even pay you—but your name and bio will be there. Become recognised so readers will want to explore your longer works.
As with other writing, writers should approach flash fiction from a place of passion—emotion, love, hope, dreams, fears, personal interests, ideals. Search within for core human experience, yet be original and creative. Write the stories you want to write, in your personal style.
What experiences have you had writing flash fiction? Share your thoughts and tips with us in the comments. Thank you!
Coming up … some specific types of flash fiction for you to try out 🙂