Writing flash fiction can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a real challenge.
I’ve been a children’s author for the past fifteen years, and I’ve also been writing flash fiction stories since before I knew the term. In this article I will be exploring the meaning and definition of flash fiction, its characteristics, and sharing my 12 top tips while drawing on my own writing experience.
What is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is also known as Sudden Fiction, Drabble, Nanotale or Microfiction. It refers to very short pieces of prose writing. Usually under 1,500 words, the word limit can vary depending on which publication, website, or competition you are writing for. It was popularized in the nineteenth century by writers like Walt Whitman, Kate Chopin, and Ambrose Bierce, but some of the best flash fiction is still being written (have a Google and see what’s out there).
It is also a genre that lends itself well to competitions (way quicker for judges to read entries than your average writing comp). In a world of thumb scrolling and multimedia distractions, it is also an appealing form for writers and readers, because once you get the hand of it you can write an entire story on just one page.
Flash Fiction Characteristics
The defining characteristic of flash fiction is that it is both short and fictional. So, what is so appealing about having such constraints imposed on your creativity?
One of my publishers once set up a competition called 24/7 which involved several authors writing stories with a maximum of 247 words. After I had submitted mine, the editor commented that he was surprised that all the authors had chosen to make their stories precisely 247 words (and no less). It was not a surprise to me. Often the constraints of a commission like this are part of the appeal. They present a challenge. They are puzzles to be solved, and ones which require intricate and precise solutions.
So let’s take a look at my top tips for tackling the trickiest of short story writing…
How to Write Flash Fiction – 12 Top Tips
A good flash fiction story takes the reader into a world which is already established – where things are happening. But it’s not as simple as merely hitting a small word count. Here are some things to consider when writing flash fiction.
Select Your Genre
Flash fiction can be in any genre, therefore the perfect opportunity to try something new. Whether you usually write romance, thriller, horror or sci fi, consider using your flash fiction to try something new. Unlike novel writing, there’s no need to worry about worldbuilding or backstories – just jump straight in!
Choose an Overarching Theme
One of the things I notice when I write my flash fiction is that the ideas that most attract me are often related to current events: things I’ve heard on the radio or read about online. I take a news story then think about how one moment of that story could affect one or two of the people involved. From these thin slices of life, you can explore broader subjects such as love, death, power or family. Have a go yourself at re-writing a piece of history in just a handful of words.
Use One or Two Key Characters
With such a limited word count, you might find it helpful to focus on fewer characters. Try making your protagonist complex or flawed or putting them up against their antagonist from the onset. Choosing first person over third person is also worth considering as it throws the reader straight into the action.
Make Every Sentence Count and Don’t Rush
As a writer, I both suffer and benefit from both optimism and selective amnesia. I always think that things won’t take long to write. You need a picture book text about dragons in a week? Sure? You need a short story on the subject of sharks in a few days? No problem.
I never learn.
Just because you have fewer word to manage, that doesn’t mean your piece of flash fiction will take any less time to write. Quite the opposite. In many cases, shorter pieces of writing will take more time than longer ones, as you are forced to peel away the unnecessary words in order to find the core of your narrative.
I often imagine writing as an act of carving. I throw a pile of words at the page then, through editing, chisel away until I find the shape of the story. This is precisely the technique that is required to make a short piece of fiction impactful and worth reading.
One way to draw readers into your story is to focus on one powerful picture or piece of imagery around which to build the story. For inspiration why not look at pictures in a magazine or newspaper, an old photo album, or a piece of art. Sometimes, something as simple as an image of a half-eaten apple, can inspire you to create a glimpse into a story that will entice your readers. Because that is what flash fiction is, a glimpse – a flash – of a story that could easily belong in a much larger world.
Start in the Middle & Use Descriptive, Concise Language
The reason a lot of flash fiction starts in the middle, is because there’s no time (ie words) to build a rambling intro. It’s the same when writing my children’s books – I don’t have time to spend on floral descriptions, I need to grab my readers from the first line. That’s why the story must start at the most exciting (or most dramatic/upsetting) point, which is often the inciting incident in a longer novel (at about 20%) or the midway point. This is also true of Flash Fiction. Don’t introduce the story – tell it. Your characterisation has to be precise, efficient and entertaining too, without relying on lazy stereotypes. Whether its dialogue or description, every word needs to earn its keep.
Deal with a Single Conflict
Flash fiction is not the same as prose poetry. Something should happen. Something should change. It requires a beginning, middle and end. In other words, your story requires movement. It is unlikely that you will have time for a subplot or backstory, but the longer you spend on your piece of writing, the more you will discover you can wrap things up in surprisingly few words. Most fiction is driven by conflict, but with flash fiction you will most likely need to limit your conflicts to one single struggle or choice that your character encounters.
Use Descriptive, Concise Language
Good writing is all about precision and there’s nothing quite like a strict word count to really sharpen your text. Keep sentences short, and don’t use three words where one will do.
Even if you have no intention of submitting your flash fiction for competition or publication, it is still a useful exercise to try to hone your writing skills. It’s also useful to learn if you write non-fiction or marketing copy – the more you can say, in as fewer words as possible, the more impactful your message.
Create Surprise and Provide a Twist
One subgenre of flash fiction is Twitterature, in which you have to tell a story in the form of a tweet. That’s 280 characters these days but it was even shorter when I wrote this in answer for a call for twitter stories using the hashtag #StoryShop.
“The shop sold plots, themes, characters, dialogue etc, but reaching the section on twists I realised it wasn’t what it seemed. #StoryShop”
One of the things I struggle with when I write my own flash fiction is my natural inclination to include a dramatic or amusing twist. This is often seen as a key component for a good short story, and one which can certainly be put to good use in flash fiction, but for many publishers and judges it is not as necessary as you may think.
A good piece of flash fiction often simply illuminates a fleeting moment, causing the reader to pause and reflect on something or see something differently. If you can surprise your reader then you’re onto a good thing, but that surprise doesn’t necessarily need to appear at the end.
Present a Memorable Last Line
I once wrote a joke book, which also included hints and tips on writing jokes. In a sense, joke writing is another form a flash fiction. Comedians will tell you that a good gag relies on a precise choice of words and carefully formulated sentences to ensure that the punchline lands in exactly the right place. Just as flash fiction doesn’t require a twist, neither does it call for a punchline, but you’ll still want to find a final line with a little punch.
Write a Powerful Title
With my own writing, I often start with the title as that can ignite all sorts of ideas for the story. With so few words to play with in flash fiction, your title is a part of the story. Make it catchy, memorable, and in keeping with the theme. You can even be clever with it. Like a piece of art, the title may well provide a different angle in which to view the story.
Get Others to Review and Critique Your Story
Sometimes it’s hard to find beta readers to read your novel, but when writing flash fiction there’s no excuse for your story-loving friends not to take five minutes to look over your story and see if it impacts them the way you intended. Like with all forms of writing, it’s vital to be open to criticism and suggestions – plus you’ll be getting your friends hooked on flash fiction too!
And Finally… Enjoy the Challenge
I read various examples of flash fiction before I sat down to write this article, including several stories penned long before the term was coined. One of the most famous flash fiction stories – and one of the shortest – is this example of the six-word story.
“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”
The origin of this story is unclear, but the story of the story (that Ernest Hemmingway wrote it to win a bar bet) is as intoxicating as the alcohol that Hemmingway is said that have earned for writing it. It’s the idea that you don’t need a lot of words to move and inspire your readers. But to do this, you do need to find the heart of the story.
However short your piece of writing, flash fiction can be extremely rewarding. Not just in how it forces you to hack away all unnecessary words, but also because it affords you the opportunity to play with a nugget of an idea and, hopefully, come up with something interesting, fresh and illuminating.
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