By: Tammila Wright
Flash fiction fascinates me. Some think of these micro-stories as sloppy attempts at writing. But I am consistently blown away by these condensed pieces of art, precious Picasso’s earning their rightful places in the Louvre Museum. Flash fiction authors can take an entire essence of a story and reduce it to one breath. One “breath” that the reader can consume in seconds or minutes rather than hours. Talent with the ability to clarify what most of us would require many pages. How? By adopting their Voodoo of clarity to reduce extra words can enhance all genres of writing. Their unique ability instantly captures the reader’s attention with the subtilty of a jackhammer. The reader is encouraged to ask questions, and their imagination is left unhinged. Can’t we all benefit from such genius?
Flash fiction goes by other names such as microstories, micro fiction, sudden fiction, or short-short fiction with a word count of somewhere between six and 1000 words. The stories are tight and clear, sucking the reader in quickly, with each sentence moving the plot forward. It contains a complete plot, the beginning, middle, and conclusion involving only one or two characters.
The beginning of the flash fiction contains the hook, the main moral dilemma, and the character’s needs, as in a traditional full-length story. The middle speeds toward the obstacles, moral or physical, which the character is experiencing. And the end shows the character’s goal completion but with a surprise or a twist which sets it apart from a prose poem or vignette. The overarching theme is complete.
An unknown author created one of the most famous micro-fiction stories:
“For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”
Ernest Hemingway may have comprised the micro-story, but historians disagree. Regardless, it is a simple example of flash fiction containing a beginning, middle, and an end.
In Alex Keegan’s short-short fiction, Bones, he gives us a great example of leaving the reader wanting more:
“He had twenty-three minutes, a third of an hour and then a twentieth, thirty-three-and-a third percent of an hour plus five-per-cent. Find the bones, they said…”
Where I believe we get bogged down is character descriptions. Show not tell is our mantra. Does your audience need to know what your character’s first dog’s name was? Yes, you are cool for creating the deep back story, but all of that takes precious word space. Micro-fiction can push us to summarize feelings or emotions tied to an event instead of needless backstory. How can you go wrong with creating instant physical descriptions so the reader can immediately envision the characters and move on to the juicy bits?
To improve my screenwriting, I found a treasure trove in flash fiction. In screenwriting, an entire scene must be four-line paragraphs, including character descriptions. James Cameron is many things, but you might not know that he is a master of character description in his scripts. For example, perusing the first pages of Titanic, Cameron’s description of the centurion, Rose Calvert:
“The old woman’s name is ROSE CALVERT. Her face is a wrinkled mass, her body shapeless and shrunken under a one-piece African-print dress. But her eyes are just as bright and alive as those of a young girl.”
For other characters, Cameron uses actions such as “sings softly in Russian.” We instantly understand the submersible’s pilot is Russian without looking at his name. What about the character, Brock Lovett’s description?
“…a salvage superstar who is part historian, part adventurer, and part vacuum cleaner salesman.”
How can flash fiction help in other areas of writing?
How about during the editing phase? By reading and writing flash fiction, we can develop a knack for identifying unnecessary words. Stephen King says he writes his first draft for himself and edits his second draft for his readers. He understands the need for unrestrained creativity but reels it in for the second draft. Also, by developing a “flash fiction mindset” during editing, you may discover information that we commonly repeat. Get rid of it.
As an exercise, take a random sentence from something you have written. Reduce it to ten words. Now five words. Three? Hand it to someone to read. Ask them if they are confused or want to read more? Can you reduce it to two or one? You might have found your title. Consider these examples, Jaws, Brave, Elf, Rocky, It, The Godfather, Gone With the Wind (yes, that is four, but the novel is HUGE). Flash fiction titles are a study all of its own. The authors make stunning use of every word that delivers a punch. For example, Joyce Carol Oates’s, Widow’s First Year, is about surviving grief and, Damon Stewart, Déjà vu You Too, Champ, the main theme surrounds reincarnation.
By training us to whittle down our character description, their actions and intentions become clear and concise, improving our reader’s experience. Hopefully, the story will prompt the reader to think deeply about the story’s true meaning instead of drowning in a sea of useless descriptions dragging down the pace. Decongesting the story creates room for the addition of a twist at the conclusion. A twist that might change their understanding of what the story meant instead of confusing them. A twist that answers the central question by surprising the reader rather than frustrating them. Please make sure to include the character’s reaction to the resolution, so you fulfill the reader.
Tammila K. Wright is a fifth-generation Colorado Native and self-proclaimed history geek. She writes, talks, and even acts out her love of history. She is a commissioner for the Manitou Springs Historic Preservation Commission, contributing articles for the Pikes Peak Bulletin Newspaper. Her past production projects allowed her to work for The History Channel, Pilgrim Films & TV, Greystone Productions, Taurus Productions, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, PBS, and Animal Planet. Her screenwriting has paved the way for two exciting projects in 2021, soon to be announced. She is a staff blog writer and member of Pikes Peak Writers.
Tammila resides in Manitou Springs with her husband of 32 years, an astonishing daughter, and operates The Feather W Bird Sanctuary. Catch up with Tammila on her website.