One of the first known usages of the term “flash fiction” in reference to the literary style was the 1992 anthology Flash Fiction: Seventy-Two Very Short Stories. Editor James Thomas stated that the editors’ definition of a “flash fiction” was a story that would fit on two facing pages of a typical digest-sized literary magazine. Flash fiction is generally described as a complete story that includes characters, setting, a problem or conflict: which the characters must resolve for a satisfying conclusion – all in 1000 words or fewer. Some flash fiction writers do it in far fewer. In this form of literature, the phrase, “Less is more” definitely hits home.
Why Write Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is very useful for newbie writers who want to develop their story telling skills but lack the confidence for writing long elaborate tales. It is also a great way for experienced writers to learn to tighten their tales and make them more vital. Flash fiction is popular with a growing segment of readers who feel time crunched and prefer to read in bite sized chunks, but prefer not to engage in episodic reading. A complete story in a pint sized package is just the thing for them.
Four Flash Fiction Tips
Here are four things to keep in mind as you attempt to write a flash fiction piece:
Keep it Simple
Your plot needs to be kept simple. You generally don’t have room for sub-plots and back-filling. This does not mean it should be simplistic or obvious. It does mean you need to focus on what’s truly important to the story. It does mean that the conflict needs to seem real and needs to be resolved in the end. Do not make it so complex that it takes pages and pages to lay it out and resolve.
Core Cast Only
In the same way, introduce only the characters you absolutely need to tell the story. Too many characters mean too much time spent fleshing them out or leaving them flat, lifeless, and uninteresting.
Build Minimal Sets
You also want to minimize the number of words spent on describing complex setting and societies. Often this requires writers to keep to settings that are familiar to the average reader, or at least to leverage that familiarity to quickly explain the unfamiliar. Masterful flash fiction authors use allusion and metaphor to quickly paint a setting and mood.
Leverage the Readers Imagination
Those who read flash fiction are often intelligent, creative people who don’t need to have a story spoon-fed to them. Provide enough information about your characters and setting to set the story, but let the readers fill in some of the minor detail. Write so that what’s between the lines is as important as what on them.
What to Do With Failed Flash Fiction
You’ve written a clever, powerful story, edited it, polished it, perfected it, then checked the word count and it’s too long to qualify. What now?
If you are 10 words over, edit it again; see if there isn’t something you can trim or rewrite to condense it. If you’re 200 words over, consider it a short story, submit the piece to a venue that likes short stories and try again on the flash piece. You haven’t wasted anything; you just got two pieces instead of one.
Using Flash Fiction
Some writers specialize in flash fiction and offer their works to anthologies (or create their own) to build a readership. But other writers and even novelists can use flash fiction as a promotional tool by using these nuggets to interest new readers in their writing style and to introduce themselves to a new set of potential readers for their preferred venue.
Some novelists have been able to pull a scene out of a book and publish the novel nugget as a piece of flash fiction in a magazine or collection. This may interest new readers in buying the novel. But the nugget must be a free-standing story in itself.
Here are two examples of flash fiction I’ve written. Both are very short. Each is followed by a brief explanation of what I hoped to accomplish.
Act of Kindness
He sat staring at the small semi-automatic pistol laying on the kitchen table. He had been staring at it for a long time. Thinking. Deciding. He knew what needed to be done. The pain had to stop. Her pain had to stop. He hated what was happening to her, but he was powerless to prevent it.
He picked it up, a shiver ran up his arm and a small voice nagged at him in the back of his mind, “Wrong.” it said, “This is wrong.” Normally, he would agree. But life had taken a turn. She was suffering. He had to stop the suffering. He loved her, he had to help her.
“I wonder if this will hurt her.” He whispered as he fingered the gun, getting accustomed to the hard, coldness of it. “Not for long, then she will be better. No more pain.”
He pushed the tears and the uncertainty aside, stood up and walked out the front door. He marched up the forest path to her favorite place. She liked the serenity of the clearing in the deep woods and the tall, straight poplars, the birdsong. His feet crunched in the dry leaves, doubt welled, he pushed it back and marched on. It had to be done.
He rounded a bend and saw the lounge chair she liked to sit in and think.
A single shot rang through the woods.
It took them 3 days to find his body.
Act of Kindness was written as an Inspired Writing. I did not work it out or formulate it, it just was. After transferring it from my mind to my computer I pondered it. The impression I had was that he is an abusive husband with a conscience. Whatever demon controls him sometimes: alcohol, drugs, anger, whatever, when it’s over, he feels genuine remorse over his actions. He recognizes his own helplessness and seeks a solution, but is too prideful to seek help.
I left a lot unsaid. I considered revising the story to insert some explanation, but held off because I didn’t want to spoil the ending. I allow the reader to put in whatever reasoning they feel is appropriate.
A lump formed in his throat as he watched the frame building burn; orange, red and vermillion illuminating the night. Wood crackled and hissed, glass shattered as pieces fell inward, collapsing. The fire consumed the house, and the memories; all those memories. Was it wrong? No, she deserved it: burn witch, burn.
Burn was written as a Five Sentence Fiction challenge. For this you get up to five sentences to tell a story and pack in as much of an emotional punch as possible. I think the record holder for this sort of thing is Ernest Hemmingway and his shortest short story ever:
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”