So you’ve been thinking about writing flash fiction, but you’re not sure what to write…or, more importantly, what not to write! When you’re used to writing other lengths of fiction, taking on a flash fiction project can seem intimidating.
Duotrope (an online database of writers’ markets) gives the upper limit as a thousand words, but individual markets vary widely on what they want for lengths.
So instead of dwelling on word counts, let’s go with the following to explain flash fiction:
Where flash fiction differs from a “prose poem” is that a prose poem can completely disregard character, setting, problem, or resolution and still be effective. Many prose poems are simply images, moments, or character sketches. (Any other differences between poetry and fiction are beyond the scope of this article!)
When it comes to structuring flash fiction, there are no rules!
One of the most interesting parts about flash fiction is that it can have wildly different structures. Flash fiction can be six words long; flash fiction can be a grocery list; flash fiction can be a list of instructions; flash fiction can be nothing but dialog.
As long as you state or imply a character, setting, problem, and resolution, then your flash fiction piece will probably work.
Let’s look at the famous six-word story, usually attributed to Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
In a flash fiction story, you can either state or imply your setup, but you have to have one. Here’s the setup for this story:
None of these things are stated outright, only implied.
In a slightly longer story, W. Somerset Maugham’s “Appointment in Samarra,” the elements are stated fairly clearly:
“There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”
Some stories will state parts of their setup and imply others. Often, when I’m writing a piece of flash fiction, I’ll discover that I can cut a lot of words that are implied by some other element of the story.
A flash fiction piece also has to have a resolution. But that begs the question, “Exactly what is a resolution?” A resolution has two parts: it establishes how the problem in the setup is handled by the character, and it tells the reader how to feel about that. The reader can be made to feel happy, sad, conflicted, ironic, or even frustrated that the whole situation is sure to happen again.
Here are the resolutions in the examples above:
In “Baby Shoes…”:
In “Appointment in Samarra”:
Note how the normal “rules” of fiction are overturned in both stories. In the “Baby Shoes…” story, the resolution is at the beginning; in “Appointment in Samarra,” there isn’t any character development. Writing flash fiction can be an excellent exercise in learning how to break rules.
One caveat about flash fiction: it is almost always easier to write a dark or cynical flash fiction piece than a lighthearted one. This has more to do with psychology than anything else. Human brains are primed for bad news! It takes fewer words for most people to pick up on an implication of something going wrong than something going right.
You can almost always improve a flash fiction story by trimming off the ending lines! Something I’ve often noticed and discussed with other writers of flash fiction is the need to cut just one more line—usually from the end—to make the story more powerful.
As always, my recommendation for learning how to study a writing technique is to get out and read something that uses it—and then typing it in. Then with every piece I would ask myself, “What are the character, setting, problem, and resolution?” and “What is the structure and why?” It won’t be easy to answer those questions at first!
Here are some excellent flash fiction resources:
As a reader, what I love about flash fiction is that good flash fiction is very intense and takes risks that other stories cannot. As a writer, what I love is taking those risks. I invite you to thumb your nose at any sense of intimidation and try a few!
DeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com.