by Neil MacDonald
I write flash fiction in the Friday Fictioneers group every week. Flash fiction is very short fiction, typically under 750 or 1,000 words. Within it, some people distinguish between “drabbles” (100 words), “dribbles” (50 words) and so on. These distinctions don’t really matter. The genre is good exercise for a writer in editing skills and wordcraft.
The talented Friday Fictioneer, Claire Fuller (author of Our Endless Numbered Days) produced 12 hints on writing flash fiction. That stimulated me to write a few of my own.
It’s still a story. Beware of writing something that’s just a scene rather than a tale. Flash fiction has to do all the things a story normally does. It must have a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs a narrative hook, character development, conflict, resolution, dialogue and all the other elements of a regular story. The general rules of fiction apply in spades. The “show don’t tell” principle is especially important here.
Flash fiction is short, so …..
- Keep the idea simple.
- Be clear what the main conflict is and introduce it early, ideally in the first sentence
- Rule of one. There can only be one central character, one setting, one scene, one plot.
- Keep the timeline tight (even to within a few minutes) so you develop the idea rather than describing it. This isn’t an extended narrative, it’s about a moment or series of moments.
- Make the title ring so it does some of the heavy lifting for you
Enter the action at a late point, so come out early. This principle of film-making applies also to flash fiction. You don’t have time for backstory.
Reduction. This is a top tip from storyville. In cooking, a reduction is when you boil away most of the liquid to leave a thick and intense sauce. Reduce. Don’t start out writing to your word-length. Let the story take its course, then edit down. Perhaps the most famous example of successful reduction is the six-word story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”, often attributed to Hemingway.
Write like a poet – make every word count. Cut down on adjectives and adverbs and let the nouns and verbs do the work. Take the time to find the right word. Reading novels won’t help you write flash fiction. Reading poetry may.
Work with the reader and make use of the space beyond the page. Skip as much of the backstory as possible. If you reference history, fairy tales, romance, sci-fi or other tropes you can invite the reader to supply background, context and meaning themselves. What is not said may be as powerful as what is. The baby shoes story is a great example of this.
Write vivid characters. They add density and carry the action. But don’t use too many characters. One or two are usually enough. Remember to develop a character arc so there’s change in the story.
Create an illusion of generosity. You can open up a sense of space if you risk devoting precious words to small details. That way it doesn’t feel cramped like a full story cut down, or worse still, like an outline rather than a story.
The ending is crucial. Think about it very carefully. It’s not a gag, so don’t turn it into a punchline. The ending should leave the reader pondering the story and wondering about the resonances. Often, the finale is a twist. More radically, it need not be the dénouement at all. David Gaffney recommends putting the dénouement in the middle. That way you can devote the ending to considering the ramifications of what has happened.
Break all these rules if you’ve got a really cool idea and you can get away with it.
Guest post contributed by Neil MacDonald. Neil has published short stories in Structo, Gold Dust, Literally Fiction, Alfie Dog, and other outlets. His historical fantasy novel A Prize of Sovereigns has been serialised by an online publisher. Drawing on experiences working in international aid, he has also published six non-fiction books. He was born in Scotland, raised in Jamaica, and has lived and worked in England, the US and South Africa. He now lives in a cottage in Surrey, England together with his wife and the obligatory cat and dog.