Storyville: How to Write Flash Fiction
So you want to write flash fiction but don’t know where to start. Here are some tips and trick for writing excellent flash fiction. It’s not easy, somewhere between prose poetry and a short story, but it can certainly pack a wallop.
So what exactly is flash fiction? Wikipedia defines it as, “a style of fictional literature of extreme brevity,” but what the hell does that mean? It’s typically under 1,000 words and more than 500 words, from what I’ve seen at Duotrope. Anything under 500 is typically called “micro fiction.” I’ve seen some places allow up to 1,200 words. A drabble is 100 words, nano fiction is 55 words, and TwitFic (Twitter fiction) is limited to 140 characters. So, for the sake of this column, let’s say fiction between 500-1,200 words. (Consult magazine and website guidelines to be safe.) It is a complete short story, it is not you taking a 2,000-word story and cutting off 1,000 words. It should do all of the things that a regular short story does (typically 1,200-7,500 words) including using a narrative hook, conflict and resolution, character development, tension, plot, setting, dialogue—you know all the parts.
In cooking there is a term called “reduction,” which means to reduce a sauce, from something of a greater quantity, usually more liquid, down to a thicker, more intense flavor. This is the heart of what makes great flash fiction, in my opinion. You don’t have 5,000 words for setting, for long conversations, to move characters around from room to room and city to city, you have to get to it, and do it quickly, but not in a rushed manner. Where you might have four characters in a short story, you may only have two, for example. Every sentence should not only reveal character, to riff on the Vonnegut advice, but ALSO advance the plot. So how can we do this?
TIP OF THE ICEBERG, FORESHADOWING, AND OFF THE PAGE
When it comes to flash fiction you have to be clever. There will be instances where you will WANT to tell, instead of show. One sentence may be all you need to explain a sordid past as a stripper, hit man, or crooked banker. Think of the tip of the iceberg—show us that, but not the entire mountain of ice and snow. Believe me, we’ll witness the impact eventually. Think of ways you can foreshadow what’s coming, so that when we get there, the theme, mood and hints have all been set out, the conclusion making sense, having great power. Allow for some of the action to occur off the page, the consequences of the violence where we reside, instead of the entire history of abuse.
IN MEDIAS RES
This is Latin for “in the middle of things.” Don’t start your story at the beginning, don’t give us an extensive back story, unpacking twenty years of childhood trauma. Instead, start us at the inciting incident, the moment after which things will never be the same, the crossroads where your protagonist sits, uncertain what to do next. There should be a sense of urgency.
ONE IDEA OR EMOTION
Try simplifying your story so that you focus on one idea or emotion. Your protagonist has a job, making something, and that’s what this story is about, how and why he sits in a tower, away from the world, and what one action does he take that will change his life forever? What kind of totem summons an ancient evil, bringing it to your doorstep, and how might it be stopped, what might that creature look like, and who is at risk—the father, the mother, or the child? All your protagonist wants is to dance in a field of flowers, shedding one piece of clothing after another, her blonde hair spinning in the sunlight, trying to find a way to feel alive, to be seen, when everyone around her ignores her. Fear, anger, loss, hunger, love, lust, want, need, betrayal—pick an emotion and sit in that one mood, that one color, and really go deep.
THINK LAYERS, THEME, AND MOOD
When I said that flash fiction is like prose poetry, I wasn’t kidding. Every word should count, revealing character, adding layers to the emotion, developing the theme and mood, so that everywhere we look there is blue, everywhere we go there is water, every act is one of betrayal. Think about the choices you make, and don’t repeat them, avoid redundancies, say it once, and with power, so that the reader is caught up in the moment, the emotion, the little world you’ve built. When I say layers, I mean give us depth in every possible way—emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The little details will ground our reality; the universal themes will have broad appeal. If the emotion is sadness, for example, how might we wallow in that? How do we show, “sad?” Think of music, of colors (blue), think of darkness, and solitude, and a lack of friendship, or love. And while we’re in that sadness, we’ll look at our conflict, so we can either flip it, or embrace it—but there still must be change.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
This is the time to mine your own experiences, fantasies, and imagination. Risk more in these flash fictions, raise the stakes, because we don’t have the time, the space, to take it slow. You have to grab your reader's attention from the first sentence (really, from the TITLE, right?) and never let go. Put your deepest, darkest secrets on the page, put your brightest, most hopeful dreams on the page—anything that means something to you, nothing that is boring, dry or common. What did you do when he broke your heart and left you? What was it like when you dropped LSD and had that threesome? What was it like when you woke up in the cornfields, your best friend nowhere to be seen? Use it all, and when your own life is too dull—expand, invent, and embellish. This is FICTION, people! But we’ve all had childhoods (good and bad), we all have some sort of family, we’ve all probably fallen in love, had our heart broken, lost our virginity, played a game of poker around a campfire with the devil. You know, all of that stuff.
MAKE US CARE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
You have to get us to care, to feel something, immediately. The worst thing that can happen at the end of 500 words, or 1,200 words or 5,000 words, is for the reader to say, “So what?” or “Who cares?” This is one of the hardest things we do when we tell stories—gaining empathy, sympathy, making you care. And it’s not just trotting out kittens and babies and unicorns—those cheap effects don’t work. You have to build a world around those vulnerable moments—those fractured and damaged relationships. We don’t want to read about a kid going to work, delivering pizzas, making $24 in tips, sneaking a beer, and coming home to science homework. So how do we make you care? We show WHY he’s working this job—to get money for his sick grandma, his hurt father, or his sister with special needs. Does that change your sympathy? What if the science he’s studying is about cellular anomalies, his desire to find a cure for cancer, since the disease already took his cat, his mother, is killing his boyfriend. It’s not just about these grandiose moments, the cancer and death and noble acts. It can be the smallest things, done with heart and compassion—those moments can work as well. A big brother fixing a broken Barbie doll, his younger sister asleep, all cried out, exhausted. It can be the unseen moments that never get celebrated that can warm the hearts of your audience.
ONLY KEEP THE ESSENTIALS
Look at your plot, your setting, and your characters and REALLY think if everything you’re doing is necessary. Do we need five brothers, when two will do? Do we need to see the protagonist fail four times, when twice is enough? Boil your story down to the essence, and remove anything that doesn’t relate to the theme or mood, reveal character, advance the plot, or make us care.
I think you get what I’m talking about here, but in case you’d like some example of my own work, here is “Maker of Flight” (exactly 1,000 words) winner of a contest at ChiZine (and dissected here at LitReactor), as well as “Gandaberunda” (555 words) at Shotgun Honey, and “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave” (484 words) dissected here at LitReactor. Reduce, condense, and write like a poet—lyrical, dense passages that grab the reader from the first sentence, and don’t let go, taking great risks, adding personal emotions and experiences, in ways that make us care. You can do it. It’s not easy, but when you find your pace, your breath, your voice—flash fiction can be extremely rewarding.
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