In a Flash: How to Write Flash Fiction
In addition to being a reader for Literary Orphans, I'm also a judge for NYC Midnight, which hosts time-sensitive writing competitions. This past week, I helped judge a flash fiction contest, in which writers had forty-eight hours to write 1,000 words on the given prompt, which included a location and object that must appear in the story, such as a magic show and an icicle (spoiler alert: there were a lot of icicle murders.). I read a lot of compelling, flash-y pieces, and some less compelling, less developed work. Some writers seemed to have failed to grasp what, exactly, flash fiction is and what it can do.
What flash fiction is not: a glimpse of a scene without developing it, or a place to write 1,000 words of a stream-of-consciousness, or a place to give us an entire history of a society in three pages.
1,000 words is only three or four pages double-spaced, but, you may be surprised at how hard it is to write. You need to not only write 1,000 words, but to develop characters and setting and plot in 1,000 words, and show some form of transformation or change, much like you would with a longer story. Flash isn't just meant to be a brief vignette of a moment, but a complete story in a smaller container than a typical short story.
Flash fiction is having its moment on the literary scene. There's even micro flash, generally 250-500 words or less, which, of course, is even harder. Writers should beware of falling into the trap of only 1,000 words? That's easy! As just about every writer ever has said, if I had more time, I would have made it shorter. Distilling a whole story into 1,000 words takes time, effort, and patience. Here are my tips after reading, writing, and judging lots of flash fiction.
1. Read flash fiction!
The best thing you can do to study any form is to read it. See how the authors you love do what they do. This piece by Christen Enos is a great example of flash fiction. Plus, check out some of my favorite journals publishing flash fiction today. See also Lithub's list of 11 amazing flash fiction stories. Notice, particularly, how much Lydia Davis says without saying in "The Outing," which tells a full story in one sentence.
Flash is great for busy or easily-distracted readers. Good flash fiction gives you a satisfying story in a short of amount of space.
2. Focus intently.
Avoid generalizations or sweeping statements: get into the nitty gritty and give me details! Home in on a particular moment or feeling and go deep.
3. Tell a complete story. Just because flash fiction is short, doesn't mean that nothing happens. Or, at least, it shouldn't. Take Kara Vernor's "Crash." She tells a complete story in less than 100 words. We might be missing some backstory - who is this person? - but Vernor wants us to fill in those details on our own. Sparingly, she gives us just enough with this specific image that we can read between the lines and craft our own stories. Even though it's so short, there's good action and suspense, even plot.
4. Give us sensory details.
This is true of all fiction, short and long, though needs to be said. I want to see, hear, smell, and feel the scene. Put me right in it with all the sounds and smells you can imagine (but, you know, no need to go overboard). It can be a delicate balance, how much is enough without being too distracting. I say, go big in the first draft and pare back what doesn't serve the story.
5. Show Your Reader How to Read It
As the writer, you have the power to teach your readers how to read your work. They want to know early on, is there a rhyme scheme, repetition, or a pattern we're going to follow? Whose perspective is this story in? Where are we? Is this going to be a short or long piece? Are there multiple threads? Is there a plot, characters, conflict? Flash fiction often uses repetition, much like a prose poem, with a twist of compelling ending.
6. Make every word count.
Because flash fiction is so condensed, every word matters. You'll notice an errant or extraneous word more easily than you might in a 5,000-word story. Read aloud (always a good idea) and see what trips you up - cut it. Can you cut a word or phrase without changing the meaning? Then do it.
7. What's Not Said
What's not said is just as important as what is. This is true of much, if not all, writing, but particularly true of flash fiction, where space is limited. Think back to the Lydia Davis story. There's a lot underneath that silence, which is repeated, layers of story that lurk in the shadows. What can be conveyed through white space?
8. Cut, cut, then cut some more.
I said it before, but I'll say it again: Every. Word. Counts. Cut any phrases that don't tell the reader anything. Is a word there just because it sounds good? It's gotta go. Is there a phrase that you think is clever but the story doesn't change without it? It's outta there. Again, reading aloud will help you identify what to trim. You want a lean, tight story without any holes.