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Though it is often overlooked, flash fiction is a powerful form of prose. It’s a tool that can be used to show instead of tell, to sketch a brief but vivid portrait of a person or place, to create an entire world in a few hundred words. Flash fiction is a genre that can be used in a wide variety of ways, and the key to writing a good flash fiction story is to know the form and to follow its rules. The following tips will help you to write a great flash fiction story.
Start with an emotion
The hardest part of writing flash fiction is getting out of your own head. You want to create something amazing, but that will take more than just sitting in front of the laptop with your fingers poised and ready to type. To create believable flash fiction, you can’t start by flexing your literary muscles and getting bogged down in the 8,000 words that are going to lead naturally into an even more glorious 700. If you start there, odds are you’ll stall and never reach that final paragraph — and some people say that writing flash fiction is too easy. Instead, remember the reward and look straight into the eyes of someone you love. Every good flash fiction piece starts with a simple and strong emotion, one you feel right down in the pit of your stomach. Creative motivation is all well and good, but to create flash fiction that’s not just a writing exercise, but a true story of your experience, you have to start from an emotional point of inspiration.
Start with the way you feel. Research and plotting can come later. If a flash fiction piece is more than just an exercise — if it’s really there in some way to express something authoritative about your psyche and your emotional worldview — then you need to get out of your head and into the realm of raw feelings. This is true of literature in general, of course, but it’s especially valuable in flash fiction, given the form’s usual length — anything longer than a page and a half, tops. As you get into it, draw on the DNA of your emotions, and focus on their core. A bittersweet memory. An indescribable feeling that almost hurts to think about. A profound sadness in your belly. These rawing feelings are going to ground you through the rest of the writing process. After they’re solidified, you can sit down and take care of the rest. Or the rest of their story, at any rate.
Identify the main idea of your story.
Remember, while flash fiction is supposed to be short, that doesn’t mean long stories don’t have short fiction elements. A story that features very short chapters typically has few villains, while a longer story usually has many. If you want to craft a strong story, consider what point you want to make in fewer words, or reflect on the true meaning of your story. Reading the winning flash fiction stories in annual contests gives you some insight on what editors want to see in a successful short story. Take advantage of the benefits short fictional pieces have to offer.
Since flash fiction is a short story with a limited number of words, you’ll gain more freedom with how you format your story, whether using poetic devices like similes or metaphors, present tense speech, or unconventional punctuation. Don’t write in a vacuum. Even though many writers still share their work in progress online, do research before making big changes on your work. If you have your own blog, sharing your work while you’re still fine-tuning small details helps you get feedback from people who will actually remember your piece long after you turned it into your creative writing teacher. If not, you can also create word counts for practice instead of doing the important writing thing.
Keep practicing! Once you understand how to write a good piece of short fiction, practice writing short pieces. Try to write about the same story in different ways. Ultimately, the key to writing good flash fiction is to get used to the idea of seeing the whole picture before you add in all of the details.
The more familiar you are with the short-story format and common tropes of the genre you write in, the more likely you are to find success in writing flash fiction. The examples of successful flash fiction writers can help you find inspiration for a winning short story. Some of these short fiction writers aren’t as well-known, and some of their flash fiction pieces are a lot longer than others, but they all maintained a consistent audience by finding their core message, whether making a serious stance against slavery in the Antebellum South or reflecting on the skewed image of women in the roles they play in the media.
Hook your readers
Readers troll the web for stories and articles based on what’s trending and for keywords that relate to their interests. Because flash fiction is so short, it’s even more important you get straight to the point. The good news is that within a few sentences, you can catch your reader’s attention and lead them on a wild adventure. A satisfying flash fiction story can open up new worlds to your readers, making them crave more of your work. If you’re taken up by the challenge of writing flash fiction, you’re one of the elite few. Turning your short fiction into a favorite read is a difficult skill to master, but it’s easier—and more rewarding—than you’d think.
How do you hook your readers? One of the finest flash fiction authorship tales comes from Anton Chekhov. You’ve probably heard of him, as the short stories he wrote are among the most significant in all of literature. He used simple common objects and language to entice his readers. For example, his short story The Lady with the Lapdog, written in 1888, is frequently celebrated as one of the first pieces of Russian prose. The characters are afternoon beer drinkers, chatting with other acquaintances that started up with them from their rural estates. One of the ladies had her dog with her, a pug that kept jumping on the seats in the train car they sat in. It’s only a few sentences in that we realize the stories are about bucolic beauty, interrupted by rampant urbanization, a metaphor for what was happening to Russia historically. Is it any surprise the story feels so relatable to those who interact with new cities every day on business? No matter the time period or culture, people can find emotional touches that speak to them inside the masterfully crafted context of flash fiction.
Create a winning character
You might think that character development takes a lot of space, but you don’t need to give your character a full biography to make a reader think. Focus on your character’s personality traits, since they tell readers so much about character. You can create a fully-realized person with only a few descriptors — dimpled smile, warm voice, dog allergy. Well-developed characters have unique traits, and even flash fiction, with all its strict limits, can demonstrate their individual characteristics. You’ll want to make sure you have multiple characters with distinct voices, or even better, conflicted voices. One way to do this is to explore a relationship between the characters. Point of view is another valuable tool for distinguishing characters, but you can’t let a speaker share every story you tell, so you’ll have to figure out matching voices that work within the context of your piece. But apart from these tips, just remember that actions speak louder than words. Whether a character charms, degrades, or challenges other characters, actions will show your reader who the character is.
A strong understanding of worldbuilding is also a must for flash fiction. Because character development takes up most of the narrative space in flash fiction, worldbuilding becomes especially important! A more developed setting evokes stronger imagery, and more vividly interesting backstories. You don’t have enough space to explain every detail of a setting, so you’ll want to focus on one or two design elements — something that speaks to the author’s ideas and themes about the world, and will immediately tap into the reader’s imaginations. You also may want to engineer ways for a reader to visualize the insights you arrive at through creating the world — for instance, maybe your protagonist could look into the mirror and see the story reflected in his eyes.
Use dialogue well
One of the primary differences between writing short stories and writing long ones is that a long story can give you the space to explore characters through inner monologue. A short story does not afford this luxury, so dialogue serves as a more important tool to explore and develop your characters. Additionally, dialogue will maintain the fiction’s forward plot momentum, ensuring that the story isn’t stuck in a rut. Make sure, however, that your story’s dialogue isn’t monologues. Much like with real conversations, dialogue in stories should be interactive. Aim for at least one person talking about something directly related to the forward motion of the story.
The dialogue should also sound natural. If you’re having problems writing realistic sounding dialogue, study transcripts of movies you like, paying particular attention to the dialogue in scenes with more than one person. Make note of how conversations evolve — how they change direction, and how they “listen” to each other. Surprisingly, it’s often a good idea to write your speech in standard format, with the speaker’s name in front of each sentence of dialogue. These constraints may seem awkward at first, but it helps you write dialogue in a way that’s cleaner and clearer.
Make it snappy
In popular books and magazines, flash fiction is common in science fiction and fantasy magazines. With stories that run anywhere from 500 to 1,000 words, flash fiction is more of a novelette, than a true short story. Flash fiction is so challenging because its brevity forces writers to present not only a fully-characterized plot and interesting setting, but also the theme of their story as well. A flash fiction writer can’t afford to introduce extraneous characters, tangents, or internal monologues. You must know precisely the story and information you wish to tell in your flash fiction and include only what you need to illustrate that. If you do this well, your readers will remember your flash fiction long after they’ve turned the last page.
Accept that flash fiction is all about brevity
A lot of the techniques for mastering flash fiction will feel counterintuitive to writers used to working in longer forms, like the short story or the novella. Your paragraphs are shorter, your sentences are briefer, and your descriptions are more physical than thematic. In flash fiction, stragglers leave the lives of lovers and battles outside. Your readers come in as they leave, and the narration kind of moseys. No matter what you do, there’s no way to resist the clock’s march, and forgetting that means risking your story’s success from the very start.
Typically, the same word count produces a longer, fewer, and a shorter story. If you’re working within a maximum count of 500 words or so, you’re going to have to ask some questions about what to keep in and what to lose out — because there’s no way to include it all. Is each scene necessary? Can you show as opposed to tell? Can you make your characters develop differently? Flash fiction thrives on brevity and forcing its writer to strategize and make the most of compacted narration. Turn this challenge into an opportunity, and you’ll be crafting truly unique and memorable stories.
Leave questions behind
Well-known stories often find their way to the screen and the page because they leave a question in the minds of viewers or readers after the story has ended. They wonder what happened next, where the characters went, and so on — they want answers to the story’s “what happened to…?” questions. Flash fiction doesn’t have this luxury, because in order to achieve the terseness and compression that makes flash stories unique, there can’t be a deliberate attempt to bring questions into the writing. If you can help it, you should never try to do this consciously. If you keep all the steps below in mind, your flash fiction will naturally leave questions behind, without you having to think about it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that characters are insignificant in flash fiction. Quite the contrary — trusting in your characters is also important — you’ll find it much easier to develop interesting or contrasting characters when you’re attempting to achieve compressions, so that your character journey or attempt quotes are what you mention, instead of the specifics of their circumstance. They’re more abstract, but still relatable. And it’s generally better to try for generalities instead of specifics. This avoids bogging you down in unimportant details, while at the same time inspiring you to consider unfamiliar perspectives with the questions you leave behind. That can also be a valuable goal in its own right.
Learn the rules well, then break them
For beginners, flash fiction writing techniques should follow a few basic rules. It should never run past 1,000-1,500 words. It’s always best to submit stories around 500–800 words, and they shouldn’t be less than 300 words. They always star your characters and should be character-driven first and foremost, without any more description than is needed to understand the scene. They calmly and efficiently provide information about the setting, the context, and the character’s background and situation.
The tricky part is coming up with ideas, and learning that sometimes they come in the most surprising ways. If you’re used to limitations and shooting for the short word limit of flash fiction, it can teach you how to develop characters in different ways, which is good for expanding your range as a writer and growing as a storyteller. In addition, you may come up with new and different ideas for plot, worldbuilding, etc., all the better to improve your skills as an author. It will also help you become better at fitting a wealth of information into a small space. Remember that although you have a small space, it doesn’t mean you’re limited.
So break the invisible shackles of oppressive tradition and find the joy in brevity. Your writing will be stronger and clearer, the lines of communication to your audience will be opened, and you’ll spend less time laboring in vain over an uninteresting subject. Your reader will be ecstatic, whether with a simple smile on his lips, or barely able to grasp the ebook as your fastball smacks straight into his skull when riding the subways through town. Most of all, you’ll feel less like a klutz and more like a genuine artist, and it will show in the quality of your work. Good, then, to be writing flash fiction, and good luck!
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