How To Write Flash Fiction

Monday, August 04, 2008

By Louise Dop

While the traditional short story fights to hold the attention of a fast moving world, the popularity of flash fiction is on the rise. Conforming to this restricted format can be a valuable discipline for writers and with an expanding market the potential for monetary reward is significant.

While there is no universally accepted exact word limit, generally a short story is considered to constitute flash fiction if it is less than 1,000 words; most flash fiction pieces are between 250 and 1,000 words long. Although some may disregard this form as a gimmick, there are several reasons why writers should take it seriously. Its brevity is particularly well suited to the Internet where new websites dedicated to the genre are appearing all the time. With the popularity of services that allow readers to download written material on subscription to mobile phones and hand held devices, flash fiction writers have a realistic chance of placing work. And since flash fiction has a low word count, payment rates often seem high when calculated on a per word basis. Aside from the financial benefits, writing good quality flash fiction can hone the skills of even the most accomplished writer by forcing them to consider every word.

Creating flash fiction is like concocting a rich sauce. The basic ingredients of character, action, and setting are reduced down until only the essence of the story remains. However brief, this story must have a plot with a beginning a middle and an end. Merely writing an anecdote or reflection is not sufficient. Like a short, sharp shock, good flash fiction should pack an emotional punch, leaving it with the reader long after it is finished. Despite the imposed restrictions, a cleverly written work leaves plenty of room for implication, a suggestion of a much bigger story beyond the immediate snapshot.

There are a number of basic techniques which can be applied to the process of creating successful flash fiction.

Hit the Ground Running

The basic rule of short story writing is to start with a strong opening and it certainly applies here. There is no room for preamble so your story needs to begin at the start of the action or, better still, right in the middle of it. Any back-story must be implied by the right choice of words. As he returned the warm gun to his pocket, he felt for his warrant card. This sentence immediately implies that we are dealing with a policeman who has possibly just shot somebody.

Allude to the Outside World

A neat way to get back story into your work is to root it in a world already familiar to your audience. You could use historical figures, well-known fictional characters or set your story at a famous moment in time. For example, place your lead character on H.M.S. Victory or call him Dr. Jekyll and readers will make inferences based on their own knowledge.

Focus on Your Subject

When looking for ideas, go for the small details. A murder mystery novel has room for an intricate plot with complex characters and motives. A traditional short story might concentrate on the execution of the crime or its impact on the victim’s family. For flash fiction, zoom in further still--a murderer trying to remove a bloodstain from his clothes or a relative identifying the body.

Set the Scene

Flash fiction works best when contained within a well-defined physical space. Put your characters in the supermarket isle or on top of Everest and straight away the story falls into context.

Make Them Talk

As in all fiction, characters can be defined by what they say. One approach to flash fiction is to use dialogue only. Choose your characters’ words carefully and they will tell the story for you with no need for exposition.

Do the Twist

A twist ending is by no means essential, but does work well for this type of writing. As much of the plot is inferred, it is relatively easy to mislead the reader into drawing the wrong conclusions. The surprise ending also provides the emotional impact indicative of this format. Another powerful strategy is a slightly ambiguous ending that leaves the reader thinking, but not to the extent that they feel cheated.

Rewrite Your Rewrites

The easiest way to start a very short story is to forget about word count and get it written. Only then start paring away all the superfluous words. If you are struggling to keep within word limits, have you tried some of the techniques outlined above? Finally, analyze every word carefully. Once you have deemed a word necessary, consider whether there is an even better word for the job. This editing process is fundamental and once mastered will benefit all areas of your writing.

Practice Makes Perfect

Workshops dedicated to this popular form are now appearing on the Internet. They provide opportunities to practice flash fiction in the company of other writers. Challenges are often set against the clock and critiqued by independent judges or fellow contributors.

Look to the Experts

See how the likes of John Updike, Margaret Atwood and Raymond Carver do it in Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, published by W.W. Norton. o

Or their latest, Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories, published by W.W. Norton.

Louise Dop is a successful freelance writer and technical author. Her ebook, The Writer's Secret Weapon, brings together a collection of the best free online resources for writers and gives an insight into the writing life. With over 50 direct links to resources, this straightforward guide will show you the real-life tips and tricks that--armed with an Internet connection and basic computer literacy--you can try for yourself right away.

Last month to enter the WOW! Women On Writing Summer 2008 Flash Fiction Contest. Deadline: August 31, 2008 (midnight, Pacific time)


Anonymous said...

great tips, and thanks for the references.

Anonymous said...

This was very detailed and helpful. I could hardly wait to start writing and apply the tips -thanks!

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