On the face of it, anyone who isn’t familiar with the form might presume that writing flash fiction (a story told in roughly 1,000 words or less) is much easier than crafting a 5,000 word short story or climbing the literary Everest of brewing up an 80,000 word novel.
However, whilst it is true that flash fiction can be produced in a shorter time frame than its more lengthy cousins, that doesn’t mean that it’s easier. The comparison should be more like that between running a marathon, a middle distance race or the 100m dash. Each form has different advantages and constraints.
Lucent Dreaming have just launched a flash fiction competition and are planning for their next edition to focus on this shortest form of storytelling. I am honoured to be working with Lucent Dreaming as an editor for flash fiction and in this role, I will be responsible for choosing the competition winners as well as reading the regular submissions to the magazine. As such, I thought I’d share some of my top tips for crafting effective flash fiction.
Remember to tell a story…
When I first attempted flash fiction, I often fell into the trap of producing a description rather than a story. I would have an oddball character meandering around an antique shop or a beach ball deflating on deserted sands without any sense of journey or conflict. However, it’s important to remember that flash fiction is still a form of story-telling. Something needs to happen. There needs to be a plot that moves from A to B.
… but keep it simple.
Since flash fiction is constrained by a limited word count, it’s key to not be too ambitious in the story that you choose to tell. Limit the number of scenes. Avoid sub-plots and flashbacks where possible. Keep the number of characters to a minimum. The sort of stories that work well are the ‘small’ tales such as a father teaching his son how to shave or a narrator finding out a secret about his or her lover.
Make the title earn its crust
A good title can add a lot to a piece of flash. Consider hinting what the reader can expect within the story or using it to convey place, time or set the emotional tone. Generally, it’s not included in the word count. So you can often be a bit crafty when naming your story in order to pack in information that you haven’t been able to include in the piece itself.
Jump straight in
There isn’t time for faffing about with all the scene-setting you might give in a longer story. Instead, good flash pieces start on the verge of the action, or even in the middle of it. Consider these two opening sentences:
“The house at the top of Old Edgar’s Hill is a thatched cottage with a tumbledown chimney and a front door painted in duck egg blue.”
“A drip of liquid slumps onto the flagstone floor of the kitchen; a puddle of red; the air singed with metal.”
The former is a nice enough description but it is painting background detail that you don’t have time for in a piece of flash. The second sentence, by contrast, gives a hint of place whilst taking the reader straight to the heart of the story.
Focus on what’s important
Think of flash fiction in terms of an artist’s street painting. The background is a blur of colours that do little more than suggest what is going on. However, the main character(s) and their actions need to be picked out in fine details. Concentrate on adding emotional layers and creating a pleasing character arc rather than describing every intricacy of their setting. Trust in your reader to fill in any gaps.
Give the story an emotional backbone
In any story worth its salt, there needs to be an element of journey or conflict. This might be something as simple as a father reconciling himself to the fact his daughter is growing up or a pair of lovers falling out of love. Whatever you choose, to elevate the story, there should be an emotional edge to it; something for a reader to relate with or find disturbing or intriguing.
Remember that emotions work best when you show rather than tell. In flash fiction, you have the chance to experiment with interesting images and to choose words that are unexpected. However you write, the key is to never be dull!
Be concise without compromising quality
Flash writers need to be expert editors. Superfluous words need to be hunted down and cut. Rather than relying on adjectives or adverbs, focus on identifying stronger, punchier nouns and verbs. Find the most concise way of saying things without compromising meaning and question the importance of every single word, sentence or paragraph.
On the other hand, remember that rhythm and flow is important. Like a good piece of music there should be dynamic contrast within the piece. A ‘bad’ sentence will stick out like a sore thumb so you need to identify these along with repetitive phrase structures, back-to-back sentences of similar lengths etc.
TIP: If you find that you tend towards verbosity, write out the whole story and then cut it back in the same way that a sculptor might craft a masterpiece out of a lump of rock.
Finish in style
Lots of people will tell you that you need a ‘killer first sentence’ but I think it’s more important that your last line should leave an echo in the reader’s mind long after they have finished reading. Adam Lock (in his blog that analyses great pieces of flash) compares this to an acrobat sticking the landing and that’s exactly what you should aim for.
Be brave and experimental with how you write to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Try writing from different viewpoints (first person, second person) until you find the perspective that best fits. Don’t necessarily be constrained by grammar rules – for example, staccato sentences can work well to break up the rhythm. Think about borrowing poetical techniques – internal rhyme, alliteration, lists that build through a crescendo.
The most important tip that I can give, though, is to read and digest brilliant examples of flash fiction to understand about different approaches to the form. If you want a pointer of where to look, I publish a monthly showcase blog of some of my favourite pieces which might provide ideas or inspiration.