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How To Write Flash Fiction

Katherine Sanger was a Jersey Girl before getting smart and moving to Texas. She's been published in various e-zines and traditional print.

As an author, I love writing flash fiction. As a teacher, I loving teaching about flash fiction. It's a fun exercise to see how you can pare down ideas and still communicate the plot, characters, and conflict clearly and concisely.

This article gathers together some of the best advice I've learned - and taught - about flash.

What is flash fiction?

Flash fiction is an extremely short story. Flash fiction is 1,000 words or less, but there is also microfiction (under 100 words) and a “drabble” (exactly 100 words). To put it into scale, a standard short story can be up to 7,500 words. The purpose of flash fiction is to instill every word with enough meaning that you can create a full and complete world with as few words as possible.

The following is one of my favorite pieces of flash that I wrote. It was included in the Binnacle's Annual Ulta-Short Competition.

Immaculate Conception

Nora’s parents sent her to the all-girls Catholic high school.

"Academics are better.”

“No distraction from boys.”

“Exposure to religion.”

A senior girl told her about the soul test on her first day. Between classes, they weren’t allowed to talk. The girl whispered. “In the bathroom, wave your hands under the faucet. If the water doesn’t flow, you have no soul.”

Nora avoided the bathroom for three weeks. When she couldn’t anymore, she considered slipping out without washing her hands. But what if someone saw?

At the first sink, she waved her hands under the faucet.

No water.

At the second sink, she waved her hands under the faucet.

No water.

Scroll to Continue

At the third sink, she waved her hands under the faucet.

Satan appeared, crouched on the soap dispenser, red pointed tail curled in the basin, bloody contract clenched in his hand, a smirk on his face.

How to Write Flash Fiction

Pick details.

What’s important? You want to put the pieces on the board. Give enough information for the reader to know what you’re trying to convey but be careful not to run over. Every word matters. Include small details more than large chunks of information.

A perfect example of how to use details is in the story “How to Light a House on Fire” by Stace Budzko.

This piece of flash uses small details to draw you in and help tell story. When you read it, think about ways you could change the story just by changing one of the items or mentioning a different part of history. Not a highway, but a rail line. Not a pesticide sprayer but horse bridles.

Create a Title

Titles are an important part of flash fiction. The body itself can only be 1,000 words or less, but you get a little bit of flex with the title. Even then, don’t take it too far.

You can, however, include important information for the reader in the title. In the story “Midnight” by Katherine Bonnie Bailey, we find out about a girl and her dog. The story itself never straight out tells the reader the dog’s name. Can you figure it out?

What's the dog's name? Midnight.

What's the dog's name? Midnight.

Know Your Limits

When you write flash fiction, you have to Keep It Simple, Silly (KISS). What that means is to take the words into consideration. You aren’t going to be able to tackle an epic in 1,000 words. Instead, think of a story that include one or two characters and a single conflict. You want to fully cover your ideas and your characters. Not all stories can fit in flash format.

To that end, you also want to have a single purpose or theme. This is going to be very short. When you’ve written a piece of flash, it is – at most – five double-spaced pages. You can’t go far with that.

Begin at the Beginning

Every story, regardless of length, needs a beginning, middle, and end. Those concepts are a bit looser when it comes to flash fiction. Since you’re likely going to write just a single scene, you’re often going to just hint at a beginning and a middle. You need to start with action; there’s no time or space to include a build up. You need to imply what’s happened before the story began. Similarly, ending a story with a bang isn’t the best choice. Because of the length, you may find yourself needing to end the story with a trailing off. Instead of stating the end, let the reader figure it out themselves.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is true of all writing, but in flash it’s even more important. Strong images will provide more to the reader in a more condensed way. Showing generally takes less words then telling. What would your characters see? Use all the senses to tell us what the antagonist (main character) is experiencing. The descriptions you provide will help your readers fill in the missing information. Try to use your words to convey (without telling) a sense of the place, a sense of the mood, and a sense of tension.

A wonderful tool for showing and limiting your words is sensory imagery. It’s a way to appeal to as many senses as possible. If you’re describing a flower, you may choose to use words that give more than just a color. What if it’s yellow as sunshine? Instead of just the color, you may feel the warmth that it radiates. Metaphors and similes can be your friends.

Are You Talking To Me?

Who’s telling the story? Is it me? Is it you? Is it they? Point of view (POV) makes quite the difference.

First person is told from an “I” standpoint. The character is telling the story, and they can only share what they know or what they experience. You cannot include anything that isn’t within their experience. It can make for a limited viewpoint.

Third person (limited) is told by an narrator who is relating the story. As a limited third person, you as the writer cannot talk about things that are not easily viewed by the reader or by the character themselves. You don’t know what’s going on in different places or at different times unless the character also knows them.

Third person (omniscient) is told by a narrator, but they know everything that’s going on. The narrator has full access to everything that’s going on everywhere. They can relate what different people are thinking about, and they can talk about things that are happening in different places and at different times.

The point of view you’re using will tell a different story. Being able to include outside information or be limited to a single viewpoint makes a very different story. One thing to keep in mind is that you can write the original draft in first person, but if on your read-through you decide that it would be more exciting as third person, don’t be afraid to re-write.

Stop! These are some things you'll normally want to avoid.

Stop! These are some things you'll normally want to avoid.

What Not To Do

  • Don’t use an “info dump.” An info dump is a lump of information that takes up room in the story. It isn’t a story; it’s about the story. It provides a background or a way to include a lot of information quickly.
  • Don’t write a summary. It’s easy to fall into a 1,000 summary of a longer story. Check it after you write it: does it tell the complete story? Are you showing rather telling? Is it one long info dump?
  • Don’t repeat yourself unless it’s part of the style you’re writing in. Even then, consider if the repetition is necessary. You’re working with a limited word count, and that repetition should be very important to keep it.
  • Be careful with adverbs and adjectives. Obviously, you don’t need to avoid them, but if you run over 1,000 words, it’s time to go back and see what can be removed or changed into stronger nouns and verbs.

Of course, some people say it's okay to break rules. They're right. While these listed here are best practices, you'll find stories that turn these don'ts into do's. Repetition is a focus in the flash piece "Glow" by Joseph Kaufman.

Flash Fiction Ideas

These flash fiction story prompts can help you get started.

62 of the Best Flash Fiction Story Prompt by Steph Fraser

100 Days of Flash Fiction Prompts

© 2022 Katherine Sanger

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