Flash Fiction: A “Short” Guide
By Craig Anderson
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
– Mark Twain
I’m here today to talk about flash fiction.
What is flash fiction? I’m glad you asked! It is a very (very) short story. There’s no concrete definition of how long (or, more accurately, not long) a piece of writing has to be for it to be considered ‘flash fiction’, but they’re generally limited to under 250 words, often fewer. That might sound like a lot… until you actually try to craft a compelling story. It’s a bit like trying to squeeze into your favourite pair of jeans on boxing day.
There are a wide variety of websites that focus on flash fiction, some of which I have included below. Usually they provide a prompt to get your creative juices flowing. This could be a photograph, a random selection of elements (such as character/ place/ genre), or the start of a sentence. You’ll be amazed at the huge variety of stories a single picture can generate, each writer seeing something totally different. Some people will use elements from the photo in a more literal fashion; others will describe the events they imagine leading up to it; someone else might turn the cute puppy in the photo into a ravenous werewolf. The possibilities are endless.
As alluded to in the Mark Twain quote above, writing a good piece of flash fiction can often take longer than writing something much longer. This is because every word counts. If you’re going to pull the reader in and keep them glued to your story, it needs to have all the same elements as a full length novel. A compelling hook, fast-paced dialogue, great characters. Maybe even an unexpected twist. The difference is you’re only capturing a snippet of the action – a moment in time, rather than a grand adventure.
Writing flash fiction is a great place for new writers to get started, or an opportunity for experienced pros to try their hand at something new. There are a lot of different reasons that I recommend people give flash a try:
Writing a piece of flash fiction doesn’t take weeks or even days. You can write one in fifteen minutes. This makes it easy to squeeze in to your schedule, maybe as a warm up exercise before a longer writing stint, or to help you get into the habit of writing every day. It’s a great way to build up your writing stamina, kind of like doing sprints before running a marathon.
Try new things
Perhaps you’re making buckets of cash writing cozy mystery novels, but you’ve always wanted to write a horror story. Maybe you want to try writing from the point of view of a squirrel. Whatever your fancy, flash is a good way to try your hand at lots of different styles or scratch that itch for something new. Because it’s low commitment you can experiment, and failures cost you minutes rather than hours. It’s also a great idea generator. I’ve had dozens of flash fiction stories turn into short stories, two of which then became novellas, and one of which ended up as a full length novel. It’s a great way to test the water on an idea without trying to squeeze 80k words out of it.
Lots of flash fiction competitions allow commenting on other people’s stories. Of course, this also means people can comment on yours. It’s a great way to get some feedback on your writing and also learn how to critique the stories of others. Most of the flash websites I have written on have been very positive and encouraging, but don’t panic if you get feedback you don’t agree with. Consider it training for your future career as an author and that glorious writer’s badge of honour: getting your very first one star review.
Meet other writers
All the flash communities I have been part of have been exactly that: communities. We supported each other, learned from each other and, most importantly of all, had fun. There was always a sense of friendly competition, but the prize at stake was usually bragging rights. Writing can be a lonely profession and it always helps to have a group of like-minded people that you can vent with.
When you get a big group of writers together generating a whole load of content, sooner or later you’ll end up with an anthology (or two). I’ve had several of my flash fiction stories published in anthologies, with the proceeds usually going to charity. It’s a great way to introduce your writing to a wider audience. If the anthology has thirty other authors in it then that’s thirty different groups of readers that might pick up a copy and come across your writing.
So now you know why to write flash. What about how? I’ve been writing flash fiction for years. Here are a few quick tips I learned along the way:
Start somewhere interesting
With such a strict word limit, there’s no time for backstory. At best you can hint to a wider story (see below), but you should save most of your words for the snippet of time you’re trying to capture. Naturally, that should be the most interesting part of the story. This is also a very useful skill for writing the opening chapter of your novel. You have the whole book to expand upon the backstory; start somewhere interesting in the story and you’ll keep readers hooked from the first page. Remember that the Look Inside feature on Amazon is the first 10% of your book; if you can make that opening chapter truly exciting, you will greatly increase the likelihood that someone will click that Buy button.
Treat your words like money
Words are free and infinite; all you need is time to jot them down. They do, however, have value. Try to think of them like money. Spend as little as you can to get the de-sired end result. Flash fiction is great for this as it has a very strict ‘budget’, but you can apply this same restriction to a longer piece by breaking it up into chunks. This will help make your writ-ing more ‘punchy’. For example: He ran as fast as he could towards the dimly lit alleyway (12 words) can be condensed by 50% to say the exact same thing: He sprinted for the dingy alleyway (6 words) One trick I use is to give myself twice as many words as the prompt suggests when writing the initial draft, and then cutting it down to the required number of words afterwards. This helps me practice editing my stories down to their core essence and trimming away any excess words. Back to those that write novels: if you already have an opening chapter, try going through it again and see how many words you can cut out without losing the essence or flow of the story. My bet is that you could trim 25% without any negative impact. This doesn’t mean do this to your whole book – it is fine to slow down the pace – but it is much more effective when you are doing so intentionally.
Hint at the wider story
You’d be amazed at how much you can imply by phrasing things slightly differently. This falls into the ‘show don’t tell’ school of writing, but the best flash usually hints that there is more going on that you’re not being told. How exactly can you do this? Let me show you. In this flash story, someone is waiting for their partner at a restaurant. Here are two different examples:
“Sir, if you aren’t going to use the table I’m going to have to give it to another patron.” “Five more minutes. She’ll be here.”
“Sir, if you aren’t going to use the table I’m going to have to give it to another patron.” “Yeah, yeah. I know the drill.”
These have the exact same number of words, but the guy’s response speaks to very different backstories. The rest of the story may play out exactly the same, but the difference between the hopeful husband and the one used to being disappointed has a big impact on the overall tone of their relationship.
Hopefully that was enough to convince you to try your hand at writing a flash fiction story. The next question is, where do you begin? There are a huge variety of sites that deal with flash, offering everything from daily writing prompts to friendly competitions to actual paid gigs. Here are a few of my favourites, but a quick Google search will point you to many, many more:
Paragraph Planet (http://www.paragraphplanet.com)
Paragraph planet has been around for a long time. It’s a little different to the other sites listed as it is submission based, so your work has to be selected. They publish one new story every day. All entries are exactly 75 words and are formatted as a single paragraph. It’s a great place to check out some awesome, daily flash fiction.
The spiritual successor to the website I first cut my flash teeth on (the fantastic https://flashfriday.wordpress.com which sadly no longer runs a weekly competition, but still has a huge archive of great flash stories). A new prompt is posted every Friday, consisting of a character, location and genre. You have 24 hours to post your story in the comments. Then a judge will review all the stories and declare a winner for the week. There is also a cool ‘spin’ mechanism where you can select your own prompt if you don’t like the one posted.
Reddit Writing Prompts (https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/)
This isn’t strictly speaking just flash fiction, but the story submissions do tend to be on the shorter side so I figured I would include it. For those not familiar with Reddit, there is a voting system where users can vote content up or down, so popular stories move further up and less popular ones end up further down. Dozens of writing prompts are submitted every day and writers add their stories to the comments. There is a very active community here and it is possible to get your story in front of thousands of readers.
Hopefully after all that you’re itching to get stuck into writing some flash fiction! Why not write a short story of your own in the comments below?