What Is Flash Fiction?
There are, of course, as many definitions of Flash Fiction as there are writers.
Length: The closest point of consensus I could find is that Flash Fiction ought to be not more than 1000 words.
(One journal points out that, in China, this fiction is described as a story you can read in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Since there’s no smoking in public places where I live, we’ll have to come up with an alternate definition. A story you can read while waiting for the barista to finish making your non-fat, no-foam, chai vanilla iced latte? Tea-break tales? Soda stories?)
Content: Flash fiction must contain a complete story — a beginning, a middle and an end. It can be in any genre. It may — or may not — have a twist in the end.
What Flash Fiction Is Not
Flash Fiction, though short, is not:
- Simplistic – Getting a whole short story into so few words requires all the tricks up a writer’s sleeve. After writing a few of these, you’ll start to look fondly at that half-finished novel you just archived.
- A Fragment – a description of a scene or a character is not a Flash Fiction story. It’s a fragment.
- Easy – A Flash Fiction story requires just as much thought and planning as a longer story (perhaps more).
- Quick – Spare, pointed writing often takes much longer to create than longer works. The good news is that much of the ‘writing’ can be done in your head before you even sit down to type.
How To Write Flash Fiction
Good Subjects for Flash Fiction
“Look for the smaller ideas in larger ones. To discuss the complex interrelationship of parents and children you’d need a novel. Go for a smaller piece of that complex issue. How kids feel when they aren’t included in a conversation. What kids do when they are bored in the car.” – G. W. Thomas, writing in Fiction Factor
This is excellent advice. It’s easy to let a story run away with you, but the beauty of short stories is exactly this ability to focus on the moments that shape the big ideas.
Another way to find subjects for flash fiction is to take advantage of what the reader already knows: base a story on familiar tales (fairy tales, urban myths, traditional myths).
These provide many short cuts for the writer: if you talk about a fairy godmother, we know what we should expect (and you’re free to quickly subvert that!).
If you write about someone waking up in a bath full of ice, the reader immediately thinks they know something. Run with it (or away from it!). And don’t forget about mystery and humor. What is a good joke, after all, but a tiny mystery tied up with a punchline?
In the same article, G. W. Thomas advises focusing on one powerful image.
E. B. White uses this technique in his short story The Door, where the single image of the lab rat’s trigger (a circle) runs throughout the story, tying it all together. It’s a very efficient and effective technique.
Short-short stories often feature a mystery or a twist in the tale, subverted expectations. you only have so many words, and this is a great way to pack a punch. Be careful, though, not to make your ending feel too much like a traditional punchline, or risk alienating your reader.
Some writers advocate writing long stories and then paring them to the bone. Me? I’m lazy and that seems like a lot of extra work. I work on focusing on the essentials as I write (but that comes with the risk of inviting in the dreaded Inner Editor, so beware).
Writing spare, low-word-count fiction doesn’t mean you have to state the bald facts and lose all your style. You get to choose every word: leave out dialogue attributions and lush descriptions if your style tends towards satirical commentary and unexpected metaphors. Or cut the metaphors and go dialogue-heavy.
There is plenty of room for style in a Flash Fiction story as long as you focus on one central idea, and pare away everything that isn’t ‘you’.
Where To Read Good Flash Fiction
There really is no excuse for not reading flash fiction: it doesn’t take long! You can study the form a lot more quickly than if your preference were the Russian masters. Finding Flash Fiction is not hard to do. The Internet is the perfect vehicle, especially now that we’re all walking around peering at our mobile devices.
Flash Fiction Online – a paying market, so you know it is curated and someone has decided it’s worth a look.
50 Word Stories – a great way to break into micro-fiction. One of my stories made it onto this site.
Every Day Fiction – long-running site that sends a new story to your inbox every day.
Daily Science Fiction – a short science fiction emailed to you every day!
The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts – This is for all you literary types.
Vestal Review – describes itself as ‘the longest-running flash fiction magazine in the world”.
Nanoism – Another long-running Twitter fiction site.
FlashFiction Chronicles – which is part of Every Day Fiction. It has a fabulous resource page that led me to many of the sites listed here. It also has an annual Flash Fiction contest with a cash prize. Check them out.
Originally published 29 March 2012
Updated 18 April 2017
11 thoughts on “Writing Flash Fiction Gems – Small, Precious, and Slower Than You’d Think”
I’m a huge fan of flash fiction! I really enjoy the challenge of working within the restrictive word count. Then throw in a certain theme or other requirements, and I love it even more! 🙂
Looking forward to starting Story A Day in May!
Me too! Glad to have you aboard!!
Thanks for the recommend and the link to Flash Fiction Online! Excellent advice to flash fiction writers. I agree wholeheartedly. Flash is challenging. We want full stories, not just snippets from a larger work. Give us characters that we care about. Try something new. There’s so much potential within 1000 words. But tell a story!
Flash Fiction Online is always open to submissions. We pay professional rates and are a SFWA qualifying market. So once you have those May-A-Day stories polished and ready to go, send them our way.
Thanks again. Love Story-A-Day!
Publisher, Flash Fiction Online
Thanks Anna, and we love paying markets 😉
I’ll be sure to remind everyone about this in June, too, as the revisions get underway.
These are excellent tips for writing flash fiction, Julie. Being a writer now delving into flash fiction territory (I started a flash-a-week writing project just last week), I found these really helpful. I’m looking to write more than one flash a week as I go along – I hope my day job permits me to do this, though! I hope I get the hang of it soon! Thanks for these! 🙂
Thanks! Don’t let that pesky day job derail you.
Thanks, Julie. Glad you find it helpful.
P. S. Jim, I LOVE your “Six Questions For” series!
I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot recently as I read through books on story structure that have been written with novelists in mind. I think your point is absolutely right on. While the story must be a complete story, there’s no real call for ALL of it to be on the page (especially in a flash fiction length). I’ve started preaching your gospel!
Thanks for sharing the article.
Thanks for the shout out for Flash Fiction Chronicles, Julie. Some would argue that flash MUST be a complete story. On the other hand, as I point out in this article (http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/inciting-incident-and-character-arc/), either the beginning or middle may take place before the reader joins in.
Managing Editor, Flash Fiction Chronicles
These tips are all the same things I keep telling authors who submit flash fiction to my website. I’ll link to your article from my site. Thanks!