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5 Steps for Editing Mystery Flash Fiction Stories

Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.

5 Steps for Editing Mystery Flash Fiction Stories

5 Steps for Editing Mystery Flash Fiction Stories

Writing, Editing, Piecing . . . Building a Story That Will Endure

I’m from Michigan where anyone who lives south of the Mackinac Bridge is known as a troll. Across the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet, are Yoopers, the happy folks of the Upper Peninsula who live simple lives in the midst of natural wonders. We enjoy picking on each other and jokes are created, like this one.

Two Yoopers were building a sauna in the back yard. Urho, they always seem to have Finnish names, was scratching his head, looking down at a board he had just cut. “What’s the matter,” said toyvo. “You know,” said Urho, “I cut that board twice and it’s still too short.”

Cutting boards for a sauna and words from a story are forms of editing. I also think of how we manipulate photos with software programs to delete pixels and sharpen the edges of the images. This is just another form of editing. The Cambridge English Dictionary says that edit means “to make changes to a text or film, deciding what will be removed and what will be kept.”

My Sons, Scott and Dan, "Editing" Boards and Fitting Them Into Our Sauna

My Sons, Scott and Dan, "Editing" Boards and Fitting Them Into Our Sauna

Writing and Editing My Story for the 2016 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

I was recently part of a flash fiction competition and was given the genre, mystery, along with some other prompts. Like most of us, I’ve read a lot of mysteries, so I thought I would be fine writing a one thousand word story. In the process, I discovered the unique complexities of the mystery genre and their incongruence with flash fiction.

Every story, no matter which genre, has these five elements:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Problem
  • Solution

The place where mystery and flash fiction butt heads is when it comes to characters. Most genres require only a couple characters, or even just one. Mystery requires the point of view character, victim(s), the antagonist and at least one red herring character.

But I had to complicate things just a little more. Before I even knew what genre I would be writing in, I had decided I wanted to do a mixed genre story. That is fine in flash fiction….for every genre other than mystery. But I plowed ahead and wrote my mystery/romance. The result was a first draft of sixteen hundred words for a story with a limit of one thousand words. More than one third of my story had to go.

I began the overwhelming task of cutting six hundred words from a story that was already bare bones in terms of excess verbiage. I found myself forced to cut characterization, plot, necessary items that left me with an osteoporotic skeleton of a story that had no chance of standing on its own, let alone standing up against twenty-one hundred other stories in the competition.

Editing a piece of flash fiction is the same as editing any other length story. We get rid of unnecessary elements such as adverbs, side stories and back story. But at some point, because flash fiction is so short, we run out of the obvious things to cut and begin attacking the heart of the story.

Here are five ways to shorten a draft to meet the one thousand word maximum which is often placed on flash fiction.

Story Before Editing: 1536 Words

Story Before Editing: 1536 Words

Editing Step 1: Write the First Draft to Avoid the Need for Editing

Surgery always leaves a scar.

For flash fiction, the best practice may be to produce in the first draft only the material that is essential to the story. If you know that what you are writing will need to be cut, then don’t write it in the first place. Surgery always leaves a scar.

For me, this included descriptions of the setting, such as daytime giving way to evening and a lengthy description of the location of the story. I knew while I was writing that I would not be able to keep all these parts.

But as a writer, I know how valuable these descriptions can be for me as I build my story. They help me see the story in my own mind. It might be helpful to write these parts, the ones you know will be cut, in a different color. That way you can go back and cut them quickly when you are finished writing.

Editing Step 2: Avoid/Cut Openings With Extraneous Details

Cut your entire opening and start over.

Begin the story later in the action by cutting the entire opening. My story began with my main character standing in the boarding queue of a ferry. The rest of the story took place on the ferry. My MC boarded the craft, met the other characters and the story unfolded.

I could have begun with him already on board, having his club soda in the lounge. This would have cut a couple of hundred words. I didn’t do that because in the competition, there wasn’t only a limit on words, there was also a forty-eight hour time limit. I simply ran out of time to make further changes.

Editing Step 3: Begin the Story With the Mystery

All you have to do is prove that the guy standing over there named Professor Plum, killed the person lying at his feet with the candelabra he is holding in his bloody hands.

This is an extension of number two. Begin the story with the murderer, victim and weapon all together in the place of the murder. I’m being facetious, so don’t follow this part too closely. But if you did, then all you’d have to do in one thousand words is prove that the guy standing over there named Professor Plum, killed the person lying at his feet with the candelabra he is holding in his bloody hands.

When you are dealing with mystery flash fiction, you don’t have the word count for anything other than the bare bones of the story. Begin your story closer to the mystery and its solution.

Editing Step 4: Eliminate Nonessential Scenes

Transplant vital parts elsewhere.

Leave out entire scenes. This is tough when the story is only one thousand words and every scene contributes something important. The trick is to drop the scene and work the vital part in somewhere else. In my story, a scene involving the security people on the ferry had to be dropped entirely. Only a mention of the security team was left.

Editing Step 5: Eliminate Nonessential Characters

If the bartender does nothing but pour drinks, cut him from the story.

Cut characters entirely from the story or eliminate unnecessary characterization. I cut the head of security completely as well as the bartender. Of my four characters, only two had significant characterization. My red herring character simply didn’t work due to the editing. The person who was to carry out the crime, only came into the story toward the end other than a couple of earlier mentions and barely noticeable appearances.

Story After Editing: Exactly 1000 Words

Story After Editing: Exactly 1000 Words

Editing Step 6: Move Up to the Next Writing Category/Format

Admit that you have too much story for the flash fiction format.

Regarding the story I had written for the competition, I had to admit that I had too much story for the flash fiction format and needed to turn it into a longer short story. The secret is not to be a slave to the format we write in. As much as I love flash fiction, if the story doesn’t fit, I have to move on to the next category. In my case, this meant short story. It might mean you change from novella to novel.

Final Tips: Always Edit With Care and Mind the Word Count

If you undertake the challenge to write a flash fiction mystery, know from the outset that you need to pay extra attention to word count. Edit if you are over the word count utilizing the five guidelines above. But be careful when you cut. You wouldn’t want to get to the last scene, when Nero Wolfe, or your version of him, is giving the blow by blow account of how the crime occurred, only to discover you edited out the guilty person. Edit with care.

Edit with care.

Edit with care.


Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on July 23, 2018:

Are you participating in the forum? My screen name is tcFlash. What is yours? I'd like to read your story and comment on it.

princess shredder on July 15, 2018:

HI Chris! Yes, I am in in the NYCMIdnight Flash Fiction Challenge. I registered at the last minute. I have no idea how things will go for me, but it feels great to have tried!

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on July 14, 2018:

princess shredder, are you by chance in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge? It just started today and I'm in it. Thanks for reading this article. Good luck in your competition.

princess shredder on July 14, 2018:

on a whim i signed up for a flash fiction challenge and got the genre, Mystery. I searched online for info on what that might look like (since i am a non-fiction writer predominantly) and found your site. thank you for writing this article because you said many things that helped me write what i believe is a solid piece of flash fiction! and it was really fun!

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on November 23, 2017:

CMHypno, overwriting by a hundred or so words is probably the best way to write FF. When I begin to cut, I find several places where my wording is repetitive. But when I overwrite by several hundred words, I have to cut things I'd rather have kept. Good point. Thanks for visiting.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on November 22, 2017:

Interesting hub, When I write flash fiction I always write the story and then cut it down to the word count. It feels a bit like cutting a diamond- rubbing off the rough edges and polishing to bring out the shine. It's taught me to ditch whole sentences, even paragraphs, anything that does not move the story forward

Ann Carr from SW England on August 06, 2017:

Great advice, Chris! I tend to avoid mystery as I get really confused about characters and who was where when and why.

It's certainly true that any story needs several drafts and that cutting must be severe and sometimes hurt! Even after several trims, my stories are often full of unnecessary 'stuff'. I find it therapeutic to find the bare essentials - it's like cleaning all the dust off and finding something gleaming underneath; if you're lucky!


Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 02, 2016:

Deb, hello. Nice to see you here today. I appreciate the read. By the way, I just did some serious updating to my article on how to identify various large birds by wing shape. I'm trying to coax HP into moving it to a niche site.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on October 02, 2016:

Shauna, Thanks for reading this article. You never know until you try. Next challenge, I want to see your entry. Actually, flash fiction is not for everyone, either to read or to write. We all have our niche.

Deb Hirt on October 02, 2016:

It's never as easy as it looks, and you pros have certainly earned your scars and stripes.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on October 01, 2016:

Great tips, Chris. I admire those who write flash fiction. I don't think I could do it and still have a cohesive, interesting story. You, however, have it down!

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on September 25, 2016:

manatita, I believe if a person does enough writing, their own methods and style will emerge. If a classroom offers that to someone, then that is just great, but it won't last, because that professor will burn out. So we find our own way, and we find our own people to share with. Among them will be people who will tell us what we need to know. Sometimes that will be that the story isn't all that great or the poem isn't what it could be. If we never hear that, then the community we write in and for isn't yet complete. Thanks for being one of those who says what needs to be said in just the right way and at the right time.

manatita44 from london on September 25, 2016:

Hi Cam, Some great ideas here. I think that I chatted with you on this story before, so perhaps you have improved on it, I guess.

I have an aversion to class work, I really do. I simply write. Occasionally I look something up, so for instance, Flash Fiction can go up to 1000 words. This is fairly standard, so I begin with 1000 words in mind, and then trim as necessary.

I have a way of editing as I go along. Quite quickly, and of course I will re-read the entire story too, even up to a week later. I like your style though, as it is also great to be apart of a group and you have hinted at this before. Me, I just like to write and avoid courses.

I hope that you do well. Has it been judged yet? I will have another look. Much Love.

P.S. Quite handy kids you've got. Awesome!

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on September 25, 2016:

Bill, anyone who can produce all the writing helps, the fiction, long and short and 115 editions of the mailbag is not just long winded. The have talent share. Hopefully I'll be leaving the dreaded flash fiction term behind soon and will get on with my really short stories. Thanks for the encouragement.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on September 25, 2016:

Thanks again, John. I tell you, if it wasn't for the learning part of this competition, I wouldn't do this one. I will never win the NYCM, I will never be in contention to win and will likely never make it to the finals. I am competing in a middle level of writers. The upper level ones, we never see or hear from unless they stick their heads into the forum to taunt us. They show up for their award checks and disappear again. But that isn't the point. This year I learned a great deal about writing a mystery flash fiction story, not in a classroom, but in a forum with writers like me. We work it out together. And then I pass it on and it makes even more sense. Nobody wants to write and publish a story they are embarrassed of, but I'd rather do that and then turn around and show what I can do with even a failed story. You see, I don't want a pat on the back every time. I want to write well.

Ok, I needed to get that out. Sorry John, you were the chosen one. :) I even got a tear out of that one. Thanks my friend.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 25, 2016:

Good tips, all. I'm afraid I couldn't do flash fiction. I'm too long-winded. LOL

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on September 25, 2016:

This was great, Chris. Very helpful tips for a beginner fiction writer like me. It was a shame you had to cut your story back so much. All round very enjoyable hub.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on September 24, 2016:

Faith, Thanks for stopping by and checking out this hub. I posted the story I entered in the current challenge a few days ago. At that point I was not happy with it. I was even embarrassed to publish it here. The strain of word cutting really took its toll on the story. You'll see when you read it. But I'm not a pro. I'm a student of writing, so this bit of homework didn't come out so well. I can live with it now.

I do remember Bill's challenge with the house. That was one of my first short short stories. I had fun with it. Thanks for bringing up that good memory.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on September 24, 2016:

Hi Chris,

These are great pointers to be mindful of when writing fiction, especially flash fiction. Oh, those pesky adverbs! I will confess that editing one's own work is brutal. I remember a couple of years ago, Bill Holland issued another creative writing challenge with photo prompts of a Victorian House, etc., but had a 1,000 word limit. Being my usual wordy self, had to edit half my story, as you did, or a good bit of it to get it down to the 1,000 words. Anyway, it was well-received it seems and I was actually happy with the story.

Chris, you seem to do well at these challenges you enter, and I am sure this time won't be any different. I thought you had published a hub the other day, but when I clicked on it, it was not there, but now I see one published before this one now. I will read your link too.

You would make a wonderful editor.

I enjoyed your commentary about your sons and all. Your son Scott looks just like you. Can't tell about the other son.

Best of luck with the challenge.