Writing flash fiction is a lot like running a marathon — but without the training. A successful flash fiction story pulls the reader in quickly and demands they pay attention to the details. Good flash fiction isn’t just about a story idea, it’s about crafting a story idea into a story that’s exactly the right length. As with all forms of writing, there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to flash fiction, but if you follow these steps, you’ll be well on your way to writing a story that’s just as compelling and enjoyable as the longer pieces you’re used to.
Define flash fiction
Flash fiction is a very short story, usually under a thousand words. They can vary in structure a bit, but they are all designed to be self contained. This is very different from a regular novel where you introduce characters and the world, and explore them for hundreds of pages. If you write a flash fiction story that is successful the reader is invested in the story you are telling in a very short amount of time. It is a stretch to think that you can create an entire world that much story in so few words.
Flash fiction is used for a lot of things. Many times it is used as a way to practice your writing skills. People often start with flash fiction as a way to learn how to write better and expand out later into longer stories. Other times flash fiction provides a way for an author to self publish something very quickly.
Try different genres
There’s no correct way to breakup your entries within a genre — just shake up structure and language to keep your story engaging. If realist stories feel too familiar, try something that seems completely different, like fantasy or sci-fi. If you’re a fan of structuring your scenes as a web, try writing flash fiction in that manner. Experimenting is one of the easiest ways to write flash fiction — what have you got to lose? This should also be the time to really consider not just your audience, but the intentions of your story. If you’re trying flash fiction because you’re looking for something to occupy those ‘waiting in line’ moments, ask yourself if this fits. Maybe you can use some of that time to make tumblr gifs, instead.
Forking is a prime structural principal in flash fiction — if it’s a story you can already visualize, it’s probably a wrong fit. To be clear, visualizing the story doesn’t mean sketching new frames for a camera as it enters the scene of every vignette. Instead, using forks in your story means choosing avenues to tell two similar events, focusing on two different characters, and watching the story unfold from two different viewpoints, as such.
Understand the short attention span of the reader
For starters, follow the thousand word marker. In practice, that means that you have about a paragraph to draw the reader in. Of course, with a smaller amount of words you know that your characters and dialogue aren’t going to be as fleshed out. If you work in a lingo or jargon that your audience may not be familiar with, remember that the more you define your terms, the quicker that the readers will feel like they belong in your world. Remember, you want to make the world feel as real and used as possible. So try to eliminate metaphors and similes that may leave the reader behind.
According to professionals, the opening line is the most important part of the story because it is where you invest your reader and hope to keep them. To do this, create an interesting or outlandish situation which will draw the readers in. Phrase this, like an official query letter, in just a sentence or two. This line is called the hook.
Mentally create a historical record of everything that led up to this moment. You’ll need to rely on what happens in the present to help stimulate your imagination about what comes next, but as soon as the germ of an idea hits you, write down everything you can about your starting point. This is the easiest way to rein it under your control, and prevent it from wandering onto dead ends. If you’re writing historical flash fiction, writing about a specific historical moment, this child of the story is likely easy to create. You can quickly identify the flashpoint of the event, and start panning out from there. If you’re writing a contemporary piece, you’ll want to do your research to create an inciting action. Knowing what led up to the event you’ve already used as a starting point is the easiest way to be sure that it makes sense, and you can fill in any holes if necessary.
Once you have your flash fiction story germinating, you’re going to want to keep the rest of your historical record in a convenient spot, so that you can refer back to it if you get stuck. This will help ensure that you have a frame of reference and context for your story. Also, make sure to keep doing research for new ideas, characters, and settings based on what happens in your story. If you’re writing historical flash fiction, you’ll need to reference off-stage information that can’t be known, but may have seemed likely. If the germ of the idea hadn’t been written, it wouldn’t have borne a story.
Open with action
Flash fiction has to start fast, and too much exposition is a common no-no. While you should generally be making paragraphs do double-duty, showing and also telling, you’ll need to let the second idea rest into a single sentence. Get your readers hooked quickly — include some dialogue in your opening for its immediacy and dialogue’s ability to make characters seem real. Promise the readers a character, too, so that they have someone for whom they are immediately rooting. If the reader doesn’t care about what happens to the characters in your flash fiction story, it should be short enough to forget that it happened.
Focus on emotion
Flash fiction can be really tricky because there are so few words. At just a few hundred words, you may find yourself saying, “That would have made a much more powerful essay.” To make sure you have a lot to work with in your flash fiction, you need to make sure there are a lot of strong emotions. One of the best ways to do this is to think about characters. You can make large, world-changing events seem huge and terrifying when you show the effect they have on the characters involved.
Flash fiction sets up a very fast moving plot, so your characters don’t have a great deal of time to come to an emotional resolution. In fact, you do not likely have time to depict the aftermath of any one event. This means that you must not only look at the short and long term impact of those things, but also how your characters interact with each other. Wherever there is distrust, distress, suspicion, hurt, or anything else negative, those emotional moments are what you should focus on.
Create a sense of anticipation
The thing that makes flash fiction so interesting is its brevity. In a short story or novel you can develop a sense of anticipation that builds up to a larger plot event. In flash fiction, the ending is right there from the beginning, so it’s crucial that you find another way to create a sense of rising tension. There are different ways to do this. For example, think about how you can stoke the curiosity of your reader. Or zero in on the smallest of moments and describe it so closely that you don’t move the story forward, but simply intensify what’s already happening.
Another way you can create captivating flash fiction is to end your story prematurely. When you get to the end, think carefully about how the outcome might have logically played out, and leave your readers imagining the possibilities. Alternatively, write flash fiction that’s about the process of the story rather than the denouement. This can be done in any number of ways. Describe the mundane details of a character’s day with enough precision that you end your story at nightfall, and leave your reader wondering how the day will go on from there. Alternately, the final moment can be your character waking up to a changed world, or beginning to contemplate the different path they would have taken.
Don’t take it from a bigger story
Flash fiction is a completely different ballgame from regular-length stories like novels and novellas. One thing that you need to keep in mind is that writing flash fiction is not an attempt to write a smaller story. It is, as the name suggests, about condensing the language you use from conventional story posts into an eminently readable format. One of the important factors to bear in mind while performing this compilation is that anything that does not bear directly onto the story’s defining elements must be left out. You do not want to replicate the story word for word. Since the entire point of flash fiction is to write a smaller version of a regular story you have to make use of stringent brevity and creative means. In order to do this you will have to use synonyms and shorten everything in your posts.
Give your story a sense of completeness
One of the most important rules of narrative is that there must be a sense of closure. You must have the finishing, in all things. Take into mind, however, that there are two ways to accomplish this sense of closure. You can either provide an actual ending for your story or you can imply a foreseeable ending.
Do not allow yourself to accept that leaving an entrance to your story is enough to satisfy the sense of closure. You must provide either an actual end, or imply a foreseeable ending. If you leave your reader wondering about your intentions with this point you will invite far more debate than you want. Alternatively, if you imply an ending and you then fail to uphold that implication, reader annoyance will be high. While feelings of being challenged by your story’s plausibility can be genuine on some levels, most are not the sorts of feelings that you want to provoke.
Finish it strong
Be intentional when crafting your flash fiction, especially about character. Readers notice when a writer quickly establishes a character’s personality when they haven’t had much word count to build on it. So take your time to show off your writing chops. Make your character more complex, especially in terms of physical appearance. Say more about how they move, or interact with others, or if they wear their heart on their sleeve. Establish a distinct voice—whether it’s confident or apprehensive, high-pitched or booming, the words of your character should sound different from the rest of their world. Over time, create a rich character that readers will care about.
Invite a critique partner
No matter how accomplished a writer you’ve become, you probably need to take a step back every now and then and get a fresh set of eyes on your work. A critique partner plays an important role at just such a moment, and choosing the right one is the first step to getting the most out of them. Make sure you seek out a critique partner who understands the goals of flash fiction — someone who will listen closely to the story you’ve written and not try to push it in a different direction. For more specific ideas about how to find, and work with a critique partner, try my article here.
After you’ve found your partner, set up a timeslot when you can both sit down together and go over your story. Promise each other to respect each other’s opinions. Tell each other what’s really troubling you about the story, and ask for help on that specific point. Note ideas on where to go next — and don’t be afraid to be specific and specific! If your critique partner asks you to write out your story in detailed outline, that’s a sign that your story is in good hands. And when an idea your partner suggests doesn’t work for you immediately, move on and keep it in mind — maybe if you work on it a day or two later, it will feel more cohesive.
Part of the joy of writing flash fiction is how you can take that writing process and do whatever you want with it. If you end up feeling more inspired by other approaches, like first drafting by the seat of your pants or making a list of writing prompts, by all means, run with it. The best advice you can follow is, “Whatever happens, happens.” When it comes to writing flash fiction, just do whatever feels good, and you’ll end up with a unique and powerful story you can be proud of.
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