By S.D. Grimm
Fiction in a Flash
In the simplest terms, flash fiction is a story in 1,000 words or less. Yep. A whole story—any genre—in less than approximately four double- spaced pages.
You might wonder it it’s possible to write a story in under 1,000 words, and I’m here to tell you that it is. I’ve read flash fiction pieces in as little as six words before. If you think that’s tough, consider micro fiction, a story in under 500 words; or nano fiction, a story in under 100 words or less. But don’t be discouraged. Once you understand the basics of how to write flash fiction, I think you’ll want to try it out. Just be careful; writing flash fiction can be like eating potato chips—good luck stopping at just one.
No Flash in the Pan
Who doesn’t love a good story? Remember sitting around the campfire or at a slumber party and staying up late to listen to ghost stories? People love stories, and sometimes, they don’t want to read a huge novel or watch a two-hour movie. There is a whole audience out there of people who want to be able to read something on the go—on their mobile devices even.
There is an audience out there that is craving flash fiction.
Who can write flash fiction? You can!
As a flash fiction editor, I’m going to break down the fundamentals of what makes up “good” flash fiction for you and give you some tricks of the trade so you can write flash fiction.
Ten Components of Good Flash Fiction
Just like any narrative, flash fiction needs a beginning, middle, and end.
A clear story goal, a.k.a. plot.
Well-developed hero and villain, whether it’s man vs man, man vs self, man vs nature, etc.
But unique to Flash Fiction:
You’re not going to have subplots. There just isn’t room in something so short. So focus on one plot and one main conflict. Conflict is the heart and soul of a story, and the main conflict needs to appear in a flash fiction piece pretty much immediately.
Another thing you don’t want to overdo are scene changes and pointof- view switches. It can be done, and I’ve seen it done successfully, but when editing and rewriting, ask yourself if the change is really necessary. Often it will just complicate the plot in ways that don’t enhance the story.
In a novel, the opening hook is that first scene that draws the reader into a new world. Many times flash fiction will play out its entire story in one scene. So the hook here is the opening sentence. It should set the tone for the story as well as introduce your reader to your character and give an inkling of the main conflict (if it doesn’t delve right into the main conflict). I’ve heard it said that novelists have 250 words to hook a reader. In flash, that’s one quarter of a long story. Other stories might even be done already. You have to grab readers’ attention in the opening line and never let go. If a reader puts down your flash piece, it’s the death sentence.
It’s that “what’s going to happen next” factor. Great storytellers create tension in every scene. When you write flash fiction, there needs to be tension in every sentence. Each sentence needs to move the story forward. Imagine if you can craft a story in which you have tension in every line. Think of how that will improve your writing.
- Tight Writing
Every word counts when you have so few. So here are a few tips for using words effectively: Backload sentences. This means putting an important, resonating, or strong word or phrase at the end of a sentence. So instead of saying, “She noticed the dagger in his hand,” try “He carried a dagger.” Use dynamic verbs. Tight writing forces you to rethink using those pesky verbs of being in exchange for something stronger, punchier. Instead of “broke” how about “shattered” or “snapped” or “crushed”? These different verbs each convey a more specific form of breakage that will make a reader’s mental image sharper.
Pick specific nouns. Instead of “car” try “Volvo” or “Mustang.” Or how about “Dachshund” in place of “dog”? Again, specific images are invoked. Use adjectives and adverbs in their most powerful form: sparingly. Instead of a huge, puffy, white cloud, pick one. Or pick something different: a cotton-ball cloud.
Watch those passive-aggressive-voice sentences. They often require more words. By using strong verbs in active sentences, you will keep your word count low and the reader moving through the story.
Beware, though. Tight writing doesn’t always mean you should choose the shortest possible sentences. Slipping into telling mode (instead of showing) for the sake of using less words isn’t going to make the story strong. And be careful that you don’t overload with adverbs for the sake of conciseness. You still have to SHOW your action, your emotion and your conflict. Flash isn’t about sacrificing good writing for fewer words. It’s an art all its own.
- Creative Title
I’ve said every word counts, which includes titles. They don’t count as part of your limited word count, but that doesn’t mean it’s a chance to get verbose. Pick something clever or that has a double meaning. Maybe the tile will be a red herring or give readers an extra tidbit about the story. Load your title with subtext whenever possible.
For example, I once wrote a flash piece titled Fearfully and Wonderfully. The theme of the story was about how everyone is different and beautiful in their own way. The plot was about the main character’s death and how afraid she was, but that she ended up not needed to be so afraid because she wasn’t alone—the person with her helped her find the beauty even in her passing. I thought the title played with both of those meanings. Another example is a story titled Mirror, Mirror. Since it was a take on a retelling of the famous Snow White tale, the title helped readers make that connection before they even started reading.
Those kinds of hints can ground readers in context, or help the story resonate after they read it and the title brings extra meaning.
Every story needs a setting. It’s easy to think that with a limited word count, setting is a throw away, but it’s not. Readers need a sense of place and time and of who is in the room. Revert back to those deliberate nouns and pick and choose your adjectives carefully.
You can zero in on a specific part of the setting—like a vine crawling up a flagpole out of an abandoned playground’s crumbled asphalt. Those are specific details that give a broad sense of setting: abandoned, new life, or possibly something choking life from something else. Imagery in setting is so full of subtext. Use that to your advantage in flash fiction when you can. And make your setting a character. Not just a place card for your characters.
- Character and POV
As I mentioned earlier, you need a clear hero and villain. Just like in other forms of storytelling, you need to make sure your characters aren’t boring, cookie-cutter, cardboard, people. Make them real. Breathe life into them.
In flash fiction, you want a small cast of characters. Large casts are warranted if you’re writing in a genre like epic fantasy. Not in flash. You don’t have time to introduce a huge cast and still have room for plot. After you’ve settled on your short list of characters, choose your POV carefully. You’ll probably only have one. Who will have the most to lose? The highest stakes? That’s your POV character. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. I once wrote a piece in which the POV character was a snowflake.
Every story has backstory. But the thing about backstory is that it already happened and doesn’t need to be explained. Needed information should come out naturally in the story and only as the reader needs to know. You do not have time in your flash pieces to dump a bunch of BS (backstory, people!) at the beginning and then get on with your story. Flash forces you to weave in the things your reader needs to know organically.
- Emotional Investment
All great fiction connects with readers on an emotional level. That’s what they’re looking for. Flash is no exception. This is why you need to show and not tell those emotional experiences. For example, not: “Harry gritted his teeth in determination.” Instead, simply write: “Harry gritted his teeth.” The context will let me know why, and what emotion he’s feeling. Readers don’t want to be told how to feel. They want to feel it with the character. Sometimes naming an emotion has its place, but showing the emotions builds a better connection with the readers. The limited word count of a Flash Fiction piece makes emotional investment even more imperative.
Unique to flash fiction is the twist ending. A lot of stories have a twist at the end, but it’s always a part of flash fiction. You’d think it would make the story predictable, and that’s where the fun of writing it comes in. The twist doesn’t always happen at the end, but it should be near the end. It makes the end satisfying and hard-striking. The whole story leads up to that moment, and it’s so perfectly set up and veiled at the same time. You’re pulling the blindfold off the reader, but having them nod and say, “Yes! I— Yes, this is exactly how it should have been! I should have seen it coming!”
from “Jot That Down; Encouraging Essays for New Writers” edited by A. L. Rogers