How To Write Flash Fiction (and why you should!)
About the Author: John Kerr
John Kerr is an amateur author and professional junior high English teacher. His work has been published in Helios Quarterly Magazine, The Wifiles, Listverse, and The Texas Writers Journal.
You can find his blog at ArtofNarrative.com where he talks about story and fiction writing.
What is flash fiction, and why should you write it? I’ll tell you. But first, can I ask a question?
Are you reading this blog post on your phone? I’d bet money your answer is yes. Most of us spend more time pointing our noses at screens than buried in books or magazines. Rather than fight this, the modern writer should ask, “How do I best take advantage of this medium?” (A question that would likely horrify Ray Bradbury, God rest his soul.)
Content abounds on the internet, and when readers’ options are limitless, it stands to reason that shorter content has a better chance of being read. As fledgling writers, we want to get our names out there, right? That’s why the short, impactful form of flash fiction is an optimal way to showcase our writing chops to casual readers.
So, how do we write quality flash fiction that stands a chance of being published and read? Check out the following tips:
Tip #1: Develop a Story Arc.
Flash fiction is like a tiny house. A builder would never say, “Our customer wants a tiny house, so let’s eliminate the bathroom and kitchen and put a toilet in the living room.” No, a tiny house has to have all the same elements as a normal home. They’re just condensed. The same goes for flash fiction.
Flash stories need a beginning, middle, and end. They need characters who have goals, and they need to end with a resolution. These are all things readers and publishers are looking for in any story. Flash fiction is no exception. So, don’t write an ambiguous piece about a character contemplating life as they stare at the sea. That’s not a story, and it won’t get published.
Tip #2: Limit Your Imagination.
Sounds like blasphemy, right? Stick with me here. In a novel, writers can devote pages to one character or a single setting. Flash fiction demands the opposite. Can you tell a good story in 1,000 words? If you can, then congratulations. You’ve written flash fiction.
The limited real estate in this medium means you must tighten your prose. Choose a single setting with one or two characters. Keep your dialogue and imagery succinct yet powerful. Use your words wisely. Flash fiction requires a sense of movement, with every word pushing the narrative forward.
Now, I’m not saying abandon creativity. However, you can’t spend four paragraphs describing a tree. This is a no-tangent zone. Save all that beautiful narration for your debut novel, limiting your flash fiction to only the words you need to push the story forward.
Tip #3: Dial up the Conflict.
As with any story, the main character in flash fiction should have a goal. They should want something. What stands between your character and their goal is your story — the conflict that keeps your readers engaged.
Choose conflict that is worthy of your readers’ time. With flash fiction, you don’t have much room to establish stakes, so don’t be cryptic. Keep your conflict universal. Think big — as in career, marriage, or life-ending stakes — or stay small. Just make sure your conflict is clear and identifiable to readers.
Tip #4: End with a Bang.
With the stakes established, make sure to end your story in a way that resonates with readers. Remember, stories don’t always need a happy ending. What matters is that you resolve your story’s conflict.
To create stakes, your characters must be at risk of losing something. Make sure those stakes are enough to keep readers interested. Then, end the story in a way that pays off for readers. Surprise them! Don’t come up with a silly twist ending that doesn’t fulfill your narrative, but avoid writing the first ending you think of as well. Readers will see it coming from a mile away.
For examples of effective short story endings, watch a season of The Twilight Zone. Those writers knew how to subvert expectations with endings that felt earned.
Tip #5: Rely on Subtext.
In flash fiction, you need to cut your story down to the bare bones. You don’t have room for extraneous dialogue or narration. Every word should push the story forward.
Remember to show, don’t tell. If a character is walking down a street and a stranger points a gun at them, don’t explain to readers what's happening. Instead, depend on subtext. Hint at setting, characterization, and backstory, then let readers fill in the blanks. Spend your words on vivid imagery and powerful prose instead.
Readers love stories that challenge them, stories that put their imagination to work. They want to excavate narratives and find meaning on their own. What they don’t want are stories that are spoon fed to them with tedious narration.
Tip #6: Read Great Flash Fiction.
There are many professional writers who have mastered flash fiction. You should be reading their work for two reasons:
Firstly, you can’t master a form of writing without first reading that form for a few hundred hours. In fact, don’t even start writing until you’ve read ten or twenty flash stories from professional writers. That way you can find inspiration while learning the ins and outs of a good flash story.
The second reason to read great flash fiction is that they’re fun. Reading flash fiction is a great way to pass time. A good flash fiction story will always be satisfying despite its brevity. Don’t believe me? Check out the following titles and tell me you’re not entertained:
• Last Long Night, by Lina Rather
• Chapter V, In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway
Now that you have a place to start, go out and find a few more flash stories to read. See if your favorite author has some flash fiction on their resume. Once you’ve read enough and feel you have a handle on the form, try writing a flash fiction story yourself.
Flash fiction is a challenging form that forces the writer to distill all the elements of a good story into 1,000 words or less. If you’re able to write a thrilling flash story that engages readers, then writing that novel will be a breeze.