I teach creative writing and love helping my students improve their technique.
What Are the Rules of Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is the modern term given to a very short story, usually one under 500 words in length. There is no standard definition and some people argue the term only applies to stories of less than 300 words and others say that any story under 1,000 words qualifies. Whatever the agreed length of flash fiction, it should still contain all the elements that you would expect to find in a longer story.
Elements of Flash Fiction Explained
Flash fiction must have a beginning, middle and an end. For the story to have impact there should be some change in action or motivation of the protagonist. The reader needs to feel that there is some kind of resolution by the end of the story.
Writing to such a tight brief is difficult. It is a different skill to that of writing a novel. Flash fiction requires brevity. An author needs to convey character and plot in a succinct manner and make every word count.
Writing flash fiction is fun. If you're nervous about getting started, I recommend you read In a Flash!: Writing & Publishing Dynamic Flash Prose. It will inspire you to try out the genre for yourself. The book is written in an informal, chatty way that makes it easy to see that writing flash fiction is a must-do for everyone.
The Essentials of Flash or Micro Fiction
- The story is short in length. This could be as brief as 6 words, or as long as 1,000.
- The tale must engage with a reader's emotions. Your characters must be fully developed and not cardboard cut-outs.
- Good fiction includes a surprise or plot twist. The ending should be unexpected and not predictable.
- The story should mark a change or epiphany for the main character. This could be a physical change, or a change of mind that has lifechanging impact.
For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn
One of the most famous examples of flash fiction is a six word story usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
He is said to have penned this six word short story in response to a bet. It may have been inspired by news published in The Spokane Press on May 16th 1910 entitled "Tragedy of Baby's Death Revealed in Sale of Clothes."
The words “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” engages your emotions because of the sadness implicit behind the final words. You are left wondering why a person had to sell the baby's shoes. Perhaps a baby was still-born or maybe a woman had an abortion after a rape? There are endless possibilities once you start to think about it.
Sudden Fiction Writing Exercise
Here are some quick questions to ask yourself to get you writing great flash fiction. For this exercise keep your story below 100 words and limit the time you write on each one to just 10 minutes.
1. Write about a cat who doesn’t want to get wet.
2. Write about a mole that is digging a burrow.
3. Write about the boot a child lost.
4. Write about the letter that didn’t arrive.
5. Write about the flooded cellar.
And don’t forget to include the essential elements needed given above.
Tell a Story in a Few Words: An Example
There are many occasions where it's necessary to ask a difficult or awkward question. The YouTube video below is one such lighthearted example. When was the last time you asked someone if they would mind holding your balloon for a moment? What was the result (or what do you think the result would have been)?
This may be a daft example, but it illustrates the awkwardness of asking a difficult question when the recipient cannot immediately see any benefit to them of granting your request. It is also exactly the kind of interaction that makes a great topic for flash fiction. The interaction has a start, a middle and an outcome. It can be funny, whimsical, frightening or informative; it’s your choice.
Asking People to Hold a Balloon
Try Writing Some Flash Fiction
Once you have a go at writing flash fiction, be warned, it can be difficult to stop! Many novice writers use the discipline of writing these short stories as way of training themselves to make every word count. You can also use writing one as an exercise to get over writer’s block.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that it requires less effort than a longer piece of fiction. With flash fiction every word must be meticulously chosen. No word can be wasted; there must be no padding in your story.
I find that the discipline of writing such a short story requires me to pare my writing to the bare minimum. I wrote the following flash fiction story “Coffee Break” as a way of trying to resolve a genuine problem that I had at work. I wanted to persuade my employer that they would benefit as well as me if they allowed me to reduce my working hours. For this story I chose to define my flash fiction word count as being below 350 words.
"Coffee Break" by Beth Eaglescliffe
The foam from the coffee made a frothy moustache on her upper lip. Susie looked around the café feeling embarrassed and wiped it away quickly. Her green eyes met those of the elderly gentleman sitting at the next table. “I’m always doing that” she said. Then she wondered why she had bothered to make a comment about something so insignificant.
He nodded in sympathy. “Be thankful you haven’t got a beard like me. My Louise is always nagging me to remove the odd crumb or drip of soup that’s got lodged there.” A small grin passed over his tired face as he thought about his long suffering wife.
Susie smiled back at him and then picked up her pen and notepad once more. This coffee break was just an excuse to take her mind off her problem of not enough hours in each day. How could she get her boss to agree to her going part-time? She stirred her spoon round the half empty mug and scooped up the foam that was still clinging to its sides. “Mm I love the smell of fresh cappuccino”.
The old man stood up to go. Before he left he leaned over and said “Thank you for brightening my day”. Susie was surprised. She’d been so engrossed in her own thoughts that she'd forgotten all about the other customers. She had made her plan and was keen to go straight to her boss to try it out.
“Employ me in short bursts and like a cappuccino I will be exciting and refreshing. If I have to work long hours I become like a leftover cup of coffee, stale and uninteresting. Shorter hours will help me give you a quality performance rather than a greater quantity of mediocre work.”
Janice, her boss, started to smile. “I’ve got to hand it to you. You have a wonderful way of getting me to see your point of view. I’ll get back to you on it, but I’m pretty sure we can work something out that suits both of us.”
Are There Flash Fiction Competitions?
Yes, there are lots of flash fiction contests advertised both locally and nationally. A quick search on the internet brings up thousands of results. However, most of them charge a fee and are money-makers for the organisers rather than prestigious contests. Think about why you want to enter a competition before spending a lot on entry fees. You may find it better to join a local writers' group and share your writing with them instead.
Flash fiction competitions have very specific rules relating to word length. Make sure you read the rules and follow them precisely, or your entry will be disqualified.
Can You Make Money Writing Flash Fiction?
Making a living by writing short stories, or sudden fiction is no easier nor more difficult than earning from other forms of creative writing. You need skill, perseverance, and a little bit of luck.
Very few authors make enough money to live on through writing alone. Some supplement their creative efforts with teaching, or giving poetry readings. YouTube videos and your own blog can also provide earning opportunities for your flash fiction, or stories of the moment.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.