Have you been meaning to write flash fiction, but been put off by the different word counts and apparent ‘rules’?
In this guide you’ll get a brief introduction to flash and its history, then we’ll talk about the essential elements to include in your flashes. I’ll also give you a checklist as an aide-mémoire at the end of the guide. And if by the end you feel confident enough to enter a few competitions, check out our guide to the best flash fiction competitions.
What is Flash Fiction?
‘Smoke-long’ is my favourite (albeit not very healthy) description for a piece of flash fiction, because it refers to the time it takes you to read the story – the same amount of time it would take you to smoke a cigarette. Some flash fiction is even shorter, one puff-long if you like.
Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata referred to them as palm-of-the-hand stories. Flash fiction is also known as fast fiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction, a micro-story, a nanotale, a short short, amongst other names.
So what exactly is flash fiction? In a nutshell it simply means very short fiction.
The longest flashes are generally considered to be 1,000 words, the shortest 6 words. Try writing and reading each of these and you’ll soon realise there’s a big difference. In 2007, the Guardian newspaper challenged several well-known writers to write 6-word short stories. Take a look and decide for yourself whether they succeeded.
Just as a short story isn’t a truncated novel, flash fiction isn’t a truncated short story. The challenge, with very short fiction, is to tell a complete story within the word count, one thing that differentiates flash fiction from prose poetry. This gets harder the shorter the word count, and that sense of challenge is one reason flash fiction is so popular.
For example, in the above Guardian article, Blake Morrison’s story “Womb. Bloom. Groom. Gloom. Rheum. Tomb” gives a sense of a whole life, with a beginning, middle and end, or an overarching narrative – but contains no detail – whereas Jim Crace’s “See that shadow? (It’s not yours.)” suggests a story, which readers tell themselves.
Arguably a piece of flash fiction is unique in the way it invites the reader to tell themselves the story like this. Other forms of prose writing do this, but because of their length, they also provide detail and narratorial incursion. In flash, this detail and incursion has to be nifty, playful – or cut out entirely.
Hemingway’s $10 bet
The above two stories were written in response to the famous 6-word short story allegedly written by Ernest Hemingway as part of a bet over dinner, which won him $10: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” As with Crace’s story, this one suggests a story which the reader then infers, and it’s probably the most famous flash fiction story in circulation today.
However, it is likely Hemingway never wrote this story. You can read the background in this article. There isn’t much evidence that the bet took place, and if it did, earlier versions of the story had appeared in newspapers several years earlier, so he was probably repeating something he had read, as an amusing riposte.
Writers from all over the world have used the flash form, including Jorge Luis Borges, Kate Chopin, and Italo Calvino. In fact, ancient myths and fables can be considered a form of flash fiction. This article by Sandra Arnold will give you a sense of the history of flash fiction – very handy if you want to learn about flash fiction in literature. She attributes the first use of the word ‘flash’ to an anthology edited by James Thomas in 1992 – giving more of a sense of the experience of reading the finished story, rather than the word length.
Flash Fiction Sub-Genres
Flash fiction has a range of subgenres but in the same way, they don’t necessarily have strict definitions either. But if you’re looking for a general guide to flash fiction word counts, we’re here to help.
Here’s a rundown, from the longest to the shortest:
1. Novel-in-a-flash and Novella-in-a-flash. This is essentially a sequence of flashes up to around 18,000 words.
2. ‘Sudden fiction’ or simply ‘flash fiction’ refers to stories of up to 1000 words or sometimes 1500 words, or two pages of an anthology. The ‘up to’ is important. These are usually loose guidelines.
3. Nanofiction or microfiction refers to stories up to 300 words, but the constraint can be stricter than that. Here are some examples:
- Postcard fiction: stories that can be written on the back of a postcard.
- Twitterature: microfiction, derived the original Tweet limit of 140 characters.
- Stories of exactly 100 words http://www.100wordstory.org/, known as the Drabble, or exactly 50 words https://fiftywordstories.com/, known as the Dribble.
- Not so exacting, some calls for submissions ask for fiction under 50 or under 10 words.
Twitter is alive with flash fiction. I recently tweeted out a call for resources and the flash fiction writers of Twitter didn’t disappoint. Here are some of the responses.
Thank you to Laura Besley (@laurabesley) who suggested the following journals:
And these follows:
@kathyfish (who has a flash fiction newsletter)
Thank you to El Rhodes (@electra_rhodes) who suggested the following:
@BBludgers for competition info.
@sagetyrtle for a list of UK flash mags.
@FlashFicFest runs an event end of October.
@FlashRoundup digests new flash regularly.
Edited highlights of the rest of the responses include: Shorts Podcast (@ShortsthePod), a podcast about the contemporary short story, including flash, @SmokeLong, a journal that has 18 years’ worth of archives, and @RetreatWest, which has over 150 flash stories published on their website, plus 9 anthologies of flash and shorts.
Key Elements of Flash Fiction
How do you go about writing flash fiction? Flash fiction stories usually include certain key elements, which I’ll explain here, but having said that, one of the elements of flash is its ability to surprise, and the continuous development of the form, creating new writing challenges and new ways of thinking about storytelling. Therefore, it is best to check several different sets of submission guidelines before editing and sending out your work.
Here are some general guidelines on how to create flash fiction, part of a range of techniques that go into creating short short stories:
- A piece of flash fiction isn’t a scene from a larger piece of fiction, or an extract. It is a stand-alone, and a complete story.
- Flash isn’t usually a ‘moment in time’ like a prose poem could be, or a discussion of the narrator’s opinion on something. It has narrative drive.
- Most flash fiction stories have a beginning, middle and end. This is possible even with the shortest short stories, like Blake Morrison’s “Womb. Bloom. Groom. Gloom. Rheum. Tomb.”
- But the shorter the flash gets, the more likely it is to use Jim Crace’s “See that shadow? (It’s not yours.)” technique and to require the reader to create the complete story for themselves, through implication.
- Morrison and Crace both provide us with a guide to plotting flash: 1) begin, grow, develop, make things get bad, provide resolution, and 2) make the reader form the story in their own mind.
What do you do about characters? How many should you include?
Read plenty of examples so you can see how other writers do it, but here’s a rough guide:
- Keep the number of characters in your flashes to a minimum. Often, you’ll only use one character, or two, as protagonist and antagonist.
- As you only have a few words available you can’t dwell on anything very much, and that includes character development.
- To create characters, you can use brief but pertinent descriptions (he wore his best suit trousers over his broken leg), unusual connections (petunias always make the best guard dogs), suggestive statements connecting place and character (he worked as a stripper at the fire station) or assumptions (I didn’t fit in and neither did my imaginary friend).
It’s important to start strongly when writing flash fiction. You don’t have time for explanations. The aim is to ‘hook’ your reader in, engaging them from the first few words. When Tania Hershman starts a story with ‘My mother was an upright piano’, from a collection of the same name, we’re hooked in by the unusual image, which hints at conflict with the narrator. Create your ‘hook’ from conflict because stories thrive on conflict.
Both ‘in media res’ and ‘mis en scene’ are important when writing flash. ‘In media res’ means starting in the middle of things, whereas ‘mis en scene’ refers to the arrangement of actors and props, scenery etc. to create a ‘stage picture’. With fiction, the stage is the reader’s mind. 1) Plunge right into the action, cutting extraneous introductions, and 2) create a picture in the mind of the reader using as few words as possible. Don’t do one without the other.
Flash fiction writers often use a twist or (more loosely) an unexpected ending. The unexpected ending is like a punchline, it emphasises the ending. They make the ending live on in the readers’ memory, aiding the sense of the reader creating the story in their own mind. If the ending were subtle, the short short story could easily feel like an extract. Making the ending like a sort of punchline gives the flash a shape. That doesn’t mean to say that all short story stories use twists or the unexpected, but it is a technique you’ll see a lot when you read examples of the form.
Editing is important with any piece of writing. In fact, I’d go as far as to say redrafting is writing. The first draft provides you with the words you’re going to play with, and in subsequent drafts you form those words into what you want them to be.
Editing takes on an extra function in short fiction writing – I mean specifically anything under 2,500 words – and the shorter the word count, the more this special function applies. Within whatever wordcount constraint you’ve undertaken, you are attempting to hone the writing to create the maximum meaning and story experience for the reader in the fewest words possible. You need to do both of those things for the story to be successful.
When writing flash, you may well write much more than you need in the first draft and then cut by chipping away at extraneous words and story threads until you’ve reached the word count required. It sometimes helps to do this in sections, like this:
- Divide the word count into beginning, middle and end. Usually the middle is twice the length of the beginning and end, so in a 1,000 word story, the beginning and end = roughly 250 words and the middle = 500 words.
- Write your story without worrying too much about word count.
- Now edit each section in turn to get it to the required amount.
When editing, you’ve got to be hyper-aware of every word you choose to use.
Read Plenty of Flash Fiction
From reading plenty of flash you’ll learn how to create a strong start, launching straight into the action, how other writers create characters economically and how they use as few words as possible. Because the flash fiction community is so vibrant, and there are so many opportunities to share your work, from reading you’ll also learn about being a literary citizen, and how to promote the work of other writers, while putting your own work out there.
Up for a Fun Challenge?
Writing flash fiction is a fun challenge and a great exercise for writers. You also get the chance to become part of the online flash fiction community. Here’s a quick summary of this guide:
- Read plenty of flash fiction and become part of the flash fiction community.
- Use your first draft to get your ideas down without worrying about word count, then edit.
- Create a strong start by launching straight into the action.
- Use as few words as possible.
- Use ‘in media res’ and ‘mis en scene’: 1) Plunge right in, and 2) create a picture in the reader’s mind.
- Use one or two characters and develop them economically.
- End with a twist or an unexpected ending.
- Use ruthless editing and redrafting to hone your flashes to get them down to the required word count.
Have fun, keep practicing, and in a flash you’ll become a flash fiction aficionado!
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