Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Five Tips For Writing Flash Fiction

I've always been a fan of flash fiction, generally considered to be stories of under 1000 words. When I was a kid they were called "short-short stories" and they were always among my favorite things to read. I had several anthologies of those stories that I dipped into over and over.

Flash fiction has been on my mind a lot recently. I used the format for each of my three WriteCampaign challenge entries (all available on my "Free Stories" page if you want to look them over). I started a blog series where I'll be writing flash fictions from reader prompts. And my recent sale to Kazka Press, "State Secrets", was as part of their flash fiction contest. One thing I've heard from a lot of people is that they are uncomfortable writing at such a short length. So, even though we're in the middle of NaNoWriMo and lots of people are focused on trying to get 50,000 words written on a novel, I thought that some flash fiction tips might be of interest. (Who knows, maybe you'll decide to write a flash fiction if you're feeling like you need a break from your novel!)

  1. Keep Focused - With under 1000 words to work with, you aren't going to have room for lots of secondary characters, multiple settings, etc. You're going to want to have a very focused stage on which your story unfolds. If you look back at each of my WriteCampaign entries, you'll see that each of them was a single scene. There were four distinct characters in The Chamber, but one of them had no dialogue and another just a single line. The story I'll be posting Friday based on David Powers King's prompt has three scenes, but basically one there is establishing and one is payoff -- the bulk of the story is the central scene.
  2. Make Every Word Count - If you have a specific word target for a contest or publication, this can become really critical. None of my first drafts for the WriteCampaign challenges came in at the limit, so I had to trim each of them. Similarly, "State Secrets" required a bit of paring after my first draft. You can get to the point where you're looking at each word to see if it's truly important. Is there something you're saying with five words that you could say with three? Let's look at "The Chamber" again. In my final draft, the second paragraph starts: "Next was a young girl holding a stuffed animal tightly to her chest." The first draft read: "Next in line was a young girl, a stuffed animal held tightly to her chest." Both say the same thing, but the final version used two fewer words.
  3. Start Near the End - This is a tip that I came across from Jim Harrington earlier today. You're not going to have a lot of room in 1000 words for setup. So, in "Vacation in Paradise," I didn't start with Lea and Jacob planning their vacation, or fighting about whether they should be searching for treasure or deck chairs. The story starts with her on the beach, moments before Jacob returns with a surprise for her. A bit of that back story is alluded to during the course of the story, but only so much. "The Chamber", with its twist/surprise ending, gives no back story at all until near the very end and, even then, it's only a hint of it.
  4. Know Where You're Going - For me, at least, when I write a flash fiction it's usually something where I'm holding the entire story idea in my head. It's "just" a matter of writing it down. I suppose you could "pants" a flash fiction by starting with an idea and seeing where your mind takes you. But I suspect that it would require a lot more word-trimming than if you had an idea where the story was going before you started. (As an avowed "plotter", I realize that your mileage may seriously vary on this tip!)
  5. Be Flexible -  Not every story can be a flash fiction. If you are working on a story and realize that it's just not going to fit into the constraints of the format, be willing to go with that. Of course, if you're looking to enter a contest, you'd be looking at having to write a different story for the contest. So, if you are committed to making a specific story a flash fiction and it's coming in way over your target length, ask yourself what you're willing to remove from the story to get down to the goal. This may be painful. There may be a conversation where the dialogue sparkles and you love the way your main character shows her wit. But if it doesn't advance the story and it eats up 150 words, it may still have to go, or at least be dramatically trimmed.
So there are five tips. If you have thoughts about writing flash fiction, feel free to share them in the comment section below!

One final bit of self-promotion. Kazka Press is asking for "votes"/ratings on the stories which won their October contest. (It's a set of blue stars below the story and above the comments.) These ratings will play a role in their decision as to which stories are put in their quarterly eBook anthology. If you read my story "State Secrets" and wouldn't mind taking a few seconds to give it a rating, I'd sure appreciate it! Thank you!


  1. I'm glad you found them helpful, Marie!

  2. Thanks for posting these tips, Michael. I appreciate your experienced insight. As we've discussed, I plan to try my hand at some flash fiction and short stories after I finish my WIP. I eagerly await everything you have to say on the subject!

  3. I find shorts so much easier than novels, which scare the bejeezus out of me. I figure if I can get these shorts good enough maybe, just maybe I can tackle the loger versions! Here's hoping!

    Thanks for your inights. I've never really thought out my process before but I seem to follow this as well.

  4. Funnily enough, these apply to most lengths, don't they? I need to try some at 1k -- perfect for #1k1hr! Thanks for the tips!

  5. @Daniel, glad you enjoyed the tips. Good luck with venturing into shorts/flash!

    @Jamie, tell me about it! I am really hoping I'm able to come out of November with something resembling a novel. My only real attempt so far stalled out badly. But I think that's because I didn't really know where I was going with it.

    Which leads perfectly into @Jessa's comment! :) Yes, I think that there's some definite overlap. Particularly when it comes to looking for words/sentences/scenes which don't do enough to move a story forward.

  6. I totally thought I was following you. Turns out I wasn't. So I fixed that.

    This is great. I've learned and gained a greater appreciation for flash fiction over the last month with all the challenges and Rule of Three. Your advice here is excellent!

  7. David, thanks for the comments! I'm glad that you found the suggestions useful.