Flash Fiction: Genre Facts, Writing Tips, and Stories
The Lure of Very Short Stories
Flash fiction, short-short fiction, or microfiction is becoming very popular. I can understand the attraction. Creating very short stories that have power can be an enjoyable process for writers. Reading flash fiction written by others is often an interesting and inspirational activity.
Some people might think that creating flash fiction is easier than writing a conventional short story because it contains fewer words. This idea is incorrect, however. When a writer is limited to a certain number of words in their stories, a stimulating and educational challenge is created. The goal is to eliminate unnecessary words and to make sure that every word that's left is important to the story in some way.
I enjoy creating flash fiction and trying to improve my skills. I also enjoy reading the work of other writers and exploring their ideas about writing. Some great examples of very short stories are being created today.
Flash fiction is also known as sudden fiction. Despite this name, most writers need time to create a flash fiction story. It's not a quick process.
How Long Is Flash Fiction?
There is no generally accepted definition for "flash fiction", other than the fact that it's shorter than a typical short story. Writers are creating stories from one sentence to one thousand words in length and calling it flash fiction. Websites asking for flash fiction submissions are increasing in number. I've discovered several that accept no more than 100 words, another that accepts no more than 300 words and one that accepts no less than 500 words and no more than 1000 words.
The terms used for flash fiction also vary. Some people differentiate between longer flash fiction, which they call short-short stories, and shorter microfiction. Microfiction is sometimes limited to a hundred words or less, not including the title.
The Challenge of Creating Flash Fiction
I don't worry much about terminology. Whatever my very short stories are called, they're fun to write. When I start a flash fiction story, I keep in mind that I'm trying to create a short piece of writing but I don't set myself a word limit. Deciding in advance that I must write only 100 words (for example) can inhibit the flow of ideas. Once I've finished the first draft of the story I edit it to try to make it more succinct.
When I started writing flash fiction, I thought that a stipulated word length would limit my expression and prevent me from developing a story properly. Now I find that while this seems to be sometimes true, it often isn't. Part of the joy in creating flash fiction is to try to eliminate extraneous material while giving sufficient information to convey the writer's intended message. The "every word counts" idea is great for developing writing skills.
I enjoy the process of including clues in the stories but leaving readers to make their own interpretation. Their interpretation may be different from mine, but that's fine. In a way, flash fiction is collaborative fiction, especially in its shorter forms.
Some flash fiction is amazingly short. I admire writers who can create an intriguing or meaningful story in a single sentence or phrase. What I find especially interesting about these sentences is that the reader is actually creating most of the story in their mind. A good sentence is thought-provoking and can provoke a different tale in each person's imagination.
The phrase below is considered to be an extreme example of flash fiction. It's often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but there seems to be little evidence to support this idea.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn— Unknown
Tips for Writing Flash Fiction
Here are some writing tips that make sense to me and that have helped me in my efforts to create flash fiction.
- Several flash fiction writers recommend writing the first draft of the story without worrying about length (within reason). Once this draft is finished, they cut out words that they feel are unnecessary, including many adjectives and adverbs. This creates a leaner and often more effective story. If you can't cut words out of your story or if the process feels forced, maybe that particular story isn't meant to be flash fiction.
- The process of writing flash fiction is not as quick as many people imagine. It takes me at least several evenings. Even when I think the story is finished, when I look at it the next day (and at a later date) I often see problems. Don't be in too much of a rush to decide that your story is finished. You do need to eventually declare that your work is complete, however, even while allowing for the possibility that you may want to edit it in the future.
- Writers need to be very careful at the beginning of the story. There aren't enough words to set the scene or describe the characters in the shortest stories. David Gaffney is a British writer who is known for his flash fiction. He recommends that writers start their very short stories in the middle.
- David Gaffney also says that the ending of a very short story shouldn't really be an ending but should leave the reader wondering. He reads three of his flash fiction stories in the video above.
The last line .... should not complete the story but rather take us into a new place; a place where we can continue to think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant.— David Gaffney in The Guardian newspaper
I love the quote above, with one caveat. I definitely think that the ending of a very short story should stimulate the reader to think about the details that weren't revealed in the story. I also think that the writer should be careful that the ending isn't so puzzling that the reader doesn't understand the story, however. The ending should be reasonably satisfying even if it doesn't answer all of the reader's questions.
More Tips for Writing Very Short Stories
- Keep the number of characters in a flash fiction story low. It's unlikely that you'll be able to use a large cast of characters effectively when there aren't many words in your story.
- Keep the plot simple and stick to only one or only a few incidents. The shorter the word length of your story, the more constrained you'lł be with respect to plot.
- Keep descriptions of people, scenes, and objects to a bare minimum.
From the tips above, It may seem that there are serious limitations to flash fiction. If you read the very short stories created by experienced writers, however, you'll see that wonderful tales can be created. In fact, many writers would likely agree that the "limitations" are actually benefits because they force a writer to concentrate on the effective use of words.
In the United Kingdom, National Flash Fiction Day occurs in mid-June. A writing competition is usually held in conjunction with the celebration. Flash fiction competitions are also held in other countries at various times in the year.
Learning by Reading
Reading other people's flash fiction creations can be a useful process for writers. A simple web search for "flash fiction" will bring up many results. After reading some good stories, you'll almost certainly be inspired by the possibilities of the genre.
Flash fiction can also be read in books. The oldest examples of very short fiction that are known today are often said to be Aesop's fables. The stories are thought to have been written in Ancient Greece during the sixth century BCE. Very short stories were likely written at an even earlier date, however.
If you're tempted to submit your own flash fiction creations to an online or offline publication, make sure that you read the rules of the site or publication carefully. In addition, try to find some reviews of the publisher. You also need to be clear about the payment structure, if there is any, and about the rights that you give up and keep if your story is published.
Two of my flash fiction stories are shown below. The first story is 287 words long and might be classified as short short fiction by some people. The second is 112 words long and might be classified as microfiction.
"A Flash in the Pan"
Evan was casting a spell in the basement. Megan was in the living room waiting for the new arrival. "Have you started?" she yelled. "Yes, dear," Evan yelled back. "Remember to wipe your feet before you come upstairs," Megan said, as she often did when he performed spell work. She loved the things that he created for their home but hated the soot that his spells produced.
Once he was able to concentrate, Evan discovered that his job was unusually easy. He was pleased to see the increasing intensity of the light and to feel its developing power. Upstairs, Megan watched the space next to the piano, hoping for the appearance of an armchair covered with a rose print fabric to match the drapes.
The spell ended with a zigzag flash of light striking the casting circle. "Is it there?" Evan yelled after a moment of recovery, as he always did when he finished a furnishing spell. There was no response, which was strange. He went upstairs without wiping his feet. He discovered that there was no armchair next to the piano and no Megan either. She had never left the house while a spell was in progress before. Evan looked around, feeling that something was amiss.
When he noticed that the surface of the carpet was rippling, Evan realized that he had performed a transmute spell instead of a transform one. He hadn't made that mistake since Megan had banished his activities to the basement. Being careful not to step on her, he went into the kitchen to get a cup of tea. Spell casting was tiring and thirsty work. He really wasn't up to doing more right now. He'd work on getting her out tomorrow.
He started to sing the aria that she loved most of all, stretching his arms out as though inviting her embrace. The effort was much too late. Friendship needed to be a two-way street. She had tried so hard to develop the relationship. Her kindness and interest in all that he did had evoked no more than a mild response. His indifference had stung and—she agreed to be honest with herself at least—offended her. How dare he ignore her attention and treat her gratitude with such disdain! Did he really think that he was so important? For a home service robot he was far too big for his boots.
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© 2015 Linda Crampton