The Art of Short Short Stories...A look at the small and perfectly formed.
Flash fiction is anything from 50 words to 1000 words, (although the latter could fall into the category short story). It uses very little exposition, and because of its structure, tends to be to the point.
Flash is quite an apt word to describe the brevity and style of writing, and like any piece of fiction it still needs to obey the rules of having a beginning, middle and a satisfactory ending. But how do you sum up a story in so few words?
The simple answer is that it’s not as easy as it sounds. Flash fiction isn’t an easy discipline, but it’s great one to master. Practice and experimentation is the best way to write great flash, plus it’s a very useful writing exercise for those who like to write short stories and novels, because it makes you say in 200 or 300 words what you normally tend to write in 1000. Every word and every sentence really does count. When you write flash the one question you must quantify is: Can I get a point across in 10 words, instead of a whole paragraph?
How to Write Flash Fiction
Flash usually concerns a single incident or moment in time, and uses maybe one or two characters. The use of a powerful image to kick start your story is something that many writers use.
The same rules for fiction also apply to flash: jump straight in with the hook, grab the reader right from the beginning, and dive straight in with the story. Unlike short stories or novels, you don’t have time to provide background and in depth characters and so on. Instead, how you write your character can make the reader identify or empathise with your character without all the peripheral, descriptive detail.
As with any story, it should be about conflict and emotion. Remember to chuck out those adverbs and cut down on the adjectives. Avoid passive voice and stick to active voice.
Most importantly, the story must have a beginning, middle and an end. Don’t fall into the trap of writing about something and then leaving the reader with nothing at the end because of an abrupt end or from providing no information. The ending needs to be satisfactory.
To give you an idea of some of these elements, here’s a 200 word flash called No Way Out.
Pale skin shone beneath the moonlight.
The muscles in his throat slithered tight as he peered down at his sleeping wife and daughter. He blinked slowly, couldn’t stop the dark swell surging through his mind, couldn’t stop the emotion.
Hopes and dreams were gone; he’d failed them. Failed himself. Losing his job had set everything in motion. No job, no money. No way to pay the mortgage. No way to stop the bailiffs. No way out.
His gaze traced the soft outline of his wife’s face. Dark curls veiled a soft expression; she was unaware that he’d deceived her for the last eight months - leaving the house each day, pretending to go to work and coming home each night, fighting to tell her the truth. But he couldn’t. Didn’t.
Now shame squatted on his shoulders like a red-eyed demon.
He was losing everything, but both his heart and mind were set.
The little girl stirred, sighed softly, then settled against her mother.
His knuckles whitened. Grip tightened.
Slatted moon glow found his face. He took in a controlling breath, but his eyes brimmed; tears teetered. Memories, moments, voices...ribbons of thought trailed into the darkness...
He lifted the blade.
No Way Out, © A J Humpage 2009
1. One of the best strategies to use with limited word numbers is make the surroundings work for your character. In other words, make references to the atmosphere, or immediate environment. For instance, hint at the eerie quiet of the forest or the sound of the surf as your character searches for something they lost.
In the example above, I make a couple of references to the surroundings. ‘Pale skin shone beneath the moonlight’ and later, ‘slatted moon glow’.
These tiny references help the reader form pictures in their mind without the use of long blocks of description.
2. Word bursts – These are what I refer to as powerful descriptive sentences made up of carefully selected words to illicit emotion. They’re usually one-liners that say so much with so few words.
Again in the example above: ‘The muscles in his throat slithered tight...’ This is a good use of word burst because it easily conveys the raw emotion the character is feeling, the way the throat closes up when we’re upset, want to cry, or when we're hurt.
3. Complete the story arc – don’t write a beginning, middle, and then forget a good ending. The story must make sense.
4. Understatement – when considering the ending, being understated works better if you’re looking for something concise, effective and to the point. As in the story above, the last line, ‘He lifted the blade’ is all that it needs. The reader will understand what will happen next, without lots of description.
5. Keep the reader guessing as long as possible with your intentions, especially so if there is a twist at the end.
• Use a great opening line or hook.
• Use a powerful image for your story.
• Keep the reader guessing - Include a twist at the end, if possible.
• Be tight, be concise – limit adjectives and adverbs.
• Brevity – can you use fewer words?
• Beginning, middle and satisfactory ending – complete the story arc.
• Edit and revise.
Next time: Grammar mishaps - quite a few people have asked for help on the subject of grammatical uses, so we'll cover the most commons ones that give the most headaches...things like split infinitives, ambiguity, dreaded adverbs etc.