How are your flashes progressing? Are you about to submit, edit, or start writing from scratch your entry for the Vocal Fiction Awards?
I've been focussing on poetry and flash lately. This does not make me an expert and I'm very much still on my learning journey. However, it does mean that I've been gobbling up every piece of flash advice that crosses my crooked path. It also means that I can curate some of that information and share it with you. Use what you like; ignore what you don't.
What flash fiction is
What is flash fiction anyway? It typically ranges from 100 to 1,000 words but it can be shorter or slightly longer. For example, 100 word flashes are often referred to as drabbles, and shorter ones are micros, and then you get 6-word-stories. Remember the famous,
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Often attributed to Hemingway but his authorship is undetermined and unlikely. In any case, it's a masterclass in flash fiction.
Here's a recent one by a fellow Vocal creator, where there's a hint of a deeper story,
There are other sub-categories too which you can look into if you're interested. I'm not going to go into more details here. I won't delve into the history of flash either, other than to say it's been around for many years. Briefly, the term flash fiction seemed to have emerged in the 1900's, but examples of the short condensed story form date further back to ancient Greek times. Aesop's fables are an early example. You can read a brief introduction here.
A final note on word count--it doesn't include the title. It helps to be creative and interesting with your title. You can be clever by using it to tell part of the story without using up your words. I have John Gillard's Very Short Story Starter for Creative Writing, which contains a one word flash. The title is a whole paragraph long.
Elements of flash fiction
It's not a condensed novel. It's rare to portray a macro view spanning a long period of time, with many characters. Because you need to be concise, you have to be selective. This means that there's no room for lengthy narratives, extensive character development, many players, or complex plots. Zone in and describe.
It leaves the reader with something long after the full stop at the end.
Use implication. A lot of information resides in what is left unsaid. This is particularly true of flash fiction. Trust your readers to fill in the gaps so that they become participants in the process. Think of Hemingway's iceberg theory; only a small part of an iceberg is above water; the rest is hidden. Put enough weight behind the words you can see, to enable a reader to use their imaginations to fill the gaps. You don't need to explain everything, but don't be vague. It's a fine line. You're looking at a short, limited word count, brevity, and conciseness.
Hemmingway's Iceberg Theory:
A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be useless.
- Ernest Hemmingway, 'The Art of the Short Story
Don't forget the arc; it's not poetry. It's also not prose poetry, which is where I often stumble, but it can sound poetic. Although I do end up with a lot of prose poems by accident. There should be a plot but think of it more as a plot within a plot within a plot. It might be a metaphor. You still want to convey the idea of a larger story and complex character, but you have fewer words to play with. Flash fiction is impactful, packing a punch--often right in the gut. It leaves the reader with something long after the full stop at the end. If you read a lot of flash, you'll often find a raw, significant moment, a crisis point.
Imagine it's like a calorie-restricted diet;
every calorie must count
View flash as an intimate interaction with the reader. Although it often doesn't have a happy ever after, there's no rule to dictate it has to contain misery. Happy flashes do exist. A reader is aware that, after reading an amazing flash, they might hurt somewhere, or feel heightened emotion; they'll know that the story doesn't end, but continues, just like our lives do. A flash won't spoon-feed you a neat and tidy ending.
Imagine it's like a calorie-restricted diet; every calorie must count, and provide the most nutrition possible. Words are calories in a flash and therefore, should deliver the highest impact.
Choose a theme or concept
A theme will drive your story. Even if you don't totally realise it, there will be something that provides the foundation for your story.
Central ideas or themes commonly include love, loss, redemption, identity, being, and existentialism. What do you think about? What bothers you? What intrigues you? What do you wish you could explore more? You can think outside the box (but maybe avoid cliches like the one I've just used).
Have a look at this stunning depicton of nostalgia, by Megan Callahan in Fractured Lit, https://fracturedlit.com/the-cloud-lab/
If you can explore the unconventional, you can capture your reader's attention in a unique way. Is there something unique that invades your thoughts? What issues resonate with you personally? What's relevant or relatable to others? Remember, if your story's narrator has forgotten her mother's birthday, make the reader feel as if they've forgotten their mother's birthday. If your narrator is cold, make the reader reach for their jacket. If they're aroused ...
Flash Fiction demands us to sit up and pay attention. By its sheer brevity, it [flash fiction] announces its urgency on the page. It demands that we pay close attention to each and every word ... and we do!
Play with uniqueness
This is an exciting one. It's time to experiment. Here is where you can play with unique perspectives and angles. The brevity of flash gives you the opportunity to challenge yourself to unpack an innovative idea within a limited word count.
You can go crazy because here is where you can steal from contemporary poetry. Flash fiction doesn't have to be a block of text. Granted, on Vocal there are certain layout limits, but you can still incorporate interest and innovation. You can explore mosaic forms, fragments, lists, white space and many others. Personally, I love the hermit crab stories, where you use an existing template for your flash. This could be anything from a DIY manual to a bus timetable. I used a post-it type note on a fridge for this one,
Try a utility bill, doctor's note, application form, recipe, witness statement or come up with your own.
Borrow from poetry. For example, repetition allows you to add an element of rhythm or urgency. I used repetition for effect in this one, to echo the beating heart of frustration, anger and fear,
Delve into unconventional narratives, abstract concepts, and off-the-wall perspectives. Many of us keep some thoughts unsaid because we feel no one would get us, that we're somehow wierd. You'd be surprised how many people would identify with your perceived wierdness. Try Teeth by Han Whiteoak in The Sunlight Press, https://www.thesunlightpress.com/2022/09/27/teeth/
Think about what would suit your unique writing style(s). Only you can tell a story with your voice. If you choose a subject that aligns with your curiosity, writing style, and personal interest, you'll create an impactful and thought-provoking piece, and your flash fiction story will shine. Your enthusiasm for the piece will reveal itself through your writing and engage your readers.
Despite the word count limit, characters are still important. Create memorable and relatable characters that leave a lasting impression on readers. You can use words that tell us about the character while also moving a story on. Can you include backstory through dialogue, actions, or thoughts? Instead of writing about how X lost her mother, say how she clutched her mother's wedding ring that always hung on a chain around her neck.
- what are their traits? Choose ones that make your character stand out. A distinct quirk, physical attribute, unique mannerism, extreme happiness, or how they react to a situation, reveal something about your character.
Depict these traits through how your character acts, speaks, responds, interacts. By using this classic showing not telling, you invite the readers to form their own impressions and to create along with you. Including sensory details such as how your character looks, sounds, smells, and moves, imprints them in the reader's mind and forms a stronger connection between them.
Despite the brevity, don't skip on depth. Complexity is a hook to keep readers interested and invested. What motivates your character? What do they fear, desire, hate? Don't waste words, just let your story convey these. One way to do this is by revealing your character's voice through authentic dialogue. Flash doesn't typically contain a lot of dialogue, but that's not a rule. Dialogue can help readers understand characters' thoughts, feelings, and motivations. You could perhaps craft a whole story using dialogue alone, where a story unfolds as the conversation progresses. This one is developed through a stream-of-thought narrative,
Space is limited so focus on the most essential elements that will make your characters memorable to readers.
Crafting a Compelling Plot
As with all stories, there should be a clear beginning, middle, and end. But in flash fiction, this needs to be concise.
Establish a strong hook to grab attention. Starting in medias res is not a hard rule, but it works well in flash fiction. The beginning drops the reader in mid action. Note that the word, action, doesn't have to mean X-Men United whirlwind; it can be a key change in a character's emotional state, outlook, revelation, or assertive decision. It introduces a main character or situation, sets the tone, and inspires curiosity. It unravels with each subsequent sentence. Consider this example I found on the Reedsy website, 'Chapter V', from In Our Time, a collection by Hemingway,
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital.
Any main action takes place in the middle section but pacing is tight and focussed. Flash, while rarely having numerous subplots or unnecessary details, often serves as a metaphor for an underlying plot.
As with any decent story, conflict and tension need to be present. It doesn't have to be a major catastrophic event, although it can be. It can be a niggling tension within a relationship; it could be a sense of disappointment with life or oneself; or it could be a major fight, death, or acrimonious separation.
Your story rides on this underlying conflict or tension. It somehow hints at the character's internal struggle, or an explicit challenge. It could reveal a disagreement with another character or situation. Create anticipation with how you unravel the tension. By using suspense, twists and risks, you keep the reader engaged.
Flash fiction is the haiku of storytelling, where economy of words reveals profound truths and sparks the imagination.
- Joyce Carol Oates
Set and control the pace by using less description to speed up action; to slow things down, up the description.
Avoid lengthy exposition. Play out your scene showing what is happening, and avoid explaining why someone is doing something. Include essential descriptions amidst the action. Try to choose details that convey more than just a scene. If you add layers to the meaning it becomes a sensory experience.
Experiment with limiting adjectives and adverbs and choosing nouns to create concrete imagery. Paint a picture with tangible images, I always cough in the car when he lights up a fag - tells us much more about the dynamic of this relationship than, for example, my dreams floated on spaces between breaths and raindrops. Just like writing contemporary poetry, make every sentence count. Every sentence should serve to advance the story; if it doesn't, scrap it.
Although I've looked at the idea of a subtext that lurks where the reader has to interpret, you can play with making your reader privy to the subtext, while the character is unaware. This is where your relationship with the reader is collaberative. An example could be where the narrator is a child describing what she sees. As adults, we may be aware that her parents are breaking up, may see signs that a child wouldn't.
Ending your flash fiction story
End with a resolution or twist, and leave the reader thinking. You're looking for a sense of closure, but with lingering questions and room for interpretation. In my experience, flash is a scene in a greater story, it recognises that a story doesn't end until everyone dies.
Lingering questions are one thing; but confusion is another. Don't make the mistake of being too vague or complicated--see Hemingway quote above. The reader should understand or be able to decipher what you have presented. They may, however, ask questions about what happens next.
- Plot twists are fine, but don't trick the reader. Striving to make the reader believe something throughout the flash that turns out to be a lie, disorients and annoys, so pepper hints throughout your flash, or build slowly into a crescendo.
- You could choose a dark ending
- A crucial turning point; a will they or won't they? situation. Either the character changes or nothing changes. At the CTP, the character chooses to repeat their recurring mistake or behaviour. They could transform themselves, or their life, but they choose the downward spiral. We are disappointed, but not surprised. Or vice versa--your character, who usually makes the right choices, is faced with extraordinary temptation or pressure. What do they choose? Maybe you don't tell the reader; maybe the point is the fact that this temptation has arisen.
Replace generalities with specifics and keep asking yourself, so what?
When you are done, edit. Leave it to rest, then return with fresh eyes. When you edit, prizewinning flash fiction author, Kathy Fish, advises looking at your vocabulary. Is it precise? Can you replace regular words with more interesting ones? Replace generalities with specifics and keep asking yourself, so what? She's inviting us to question the significance of our story. If it doesn't matter much to you, it won't matter to your reader.
Flash fiction is the art of crafting a complete narrative in a few breaths, leaving readers gasping for more.
- Etgar Keret
I have to include this one by one of my favourite flash fiction authors, Kathy Hoyle. She's amazing. This story depicts effective use of repetition, character development, compelling plot, key decision moment, and, of course, skillful writing. Enjoy https://theshortstory.co.uk/flash-fiction-breathe-by-kathy-hoyle/
I wanted to discuss ideas because it's such a common question--Where do you get ideas for flash fiction stories? Below is my list that I add to as new techniques show up.
- Look at stories on Quora, Reddit, newspapers etc. Whether national or local, news stories andr your own observations of the world around you, are treasure-chests of story eggs waiting to hatch. What is the story about? Infidelity, overcoming lack of self-esteem, NOT overcoming it, loss of trust, loneliness, friendship? What can you craft around it?
- Ebay or Facebook marketplace. Yes, you'd be surprised what people sell, but these adverts make excellent prompts. The images themselves might spark a story idea or you can ask questions. What exactly is this? How did the seller obtain this in the first place? What was it used for? Why are they selling? My story below was based on a marketplace image of deckchairs.
- Workshops and courses are amazing, whether digital, live zoom, or even from craft specific books. Working through exercises as part of a learning experience is my favourite way to start a piece of flash. Choose from the many writing websites, communities e.g. facebook, writing platforms and Literary publications. One of my favourites is WritersHQ who offer fabulous free courses including flash fiction. If you go for a paid subscription, you have even more to choose from. It's a welcoming community of fun and talented writers. I'm a huge fan of writing groups--such as this Vocal community. They offer a fabulous way to brainstorm ideas, get valuable feedback, and bounce ideas around.
- Prompts. This leads on from workshops and courses because they usually include. They'll take the form of images, quotes, specific scenarios, questions, constraints e.g. words you must include, and many more. Meg Pokrass, an award winning author of flash collections, loves prompts and sees them as a way to stimulate thinking.
- Significant moments in your life. This one's a bit obvious but I had to include it for completeness; draw on your own experiences to create fictional characters and stories. These can be main events--good or bad, or moments when you changed the way you thought about something. Perhaps it was within the context of a relationship or a challenge. After reflecting on the impact these had on you, infuse your story and character(s) with authenticity. This will help readers to relate to your piece.
- Pay attention. Intriguing stories are happening all around you so notice what triggers curiosity or strong emotions. Become an eavesdropper in coffee shops, stations, supermarkets, parks... Look for something that catches your attention. It doesn't have to be remarkable. If I look in my notebook, I have scribbled entries such as: a lady in a fur coat and stilettos walks across the green early on a Saturday morning; a mother chases a child wearing mismatched wellies (the child, not mother); at the bus stop opposite the cenotaph, lurks a skinny man, bent over. He adjusts his facemask with slow, awkward movements. These are potential story prompts.
- Dreams, imagination, and visualisations. I'm terrible at remembering dreams but I've managed a couple of pieces of writing from the odd remembered one. You don't have to remember the whole dream; often they don't make much sense anyway. Just recall some random images and see if you can mine them for inspiration. You never know who or what might emerge.
- Free writing/journalling. Letting your brain spill its contents onto a page is a bit like that cereal box you had as a child. Rice crispies everywhere but you didn't care because you'd found that toy (cheap plastic nasty thing). Try writing five random words that pop into your head--pipecleaner, glass, trees, clock, tower--there you go, easy. Pick one and write any associations around it; think of any connections, memories, ideas, random thoughts. You'll probably come up with some discordant patterns but that's good too. Just go with it and see if it sparks any ideas.
- Read and copy flash fiction. You know this already. However, don't just read it, copy it. While you are finding your style, learn from the greats. Copy word for word to get used to writing in this way. This is obviously just for your practice. Then develop this exercise to create your own work. I love the palimpsest method of practising writing. If you read a flash you love, use it as a template to write your own. Start by copying most of the structure, syntax, ideas and so on. Change any parts when you feel inclined to do so. I find that even if I start almost word for word, eventually the piece goes off piste, takes on a new life of its own. You can scrap the beginning or go back and rewrite to better suit your new version of the story. It becomes my piece and often bears little or no resemblance to the original. If it does, and you want to publish it, then credit the original author so readers know who or what inspired you.
Key points for writing successful flash
- Flash can range from 1-1500 words but generally sits at between 100-1000. It is therefore not a novel.
- Take time to craft an interesting title that works for you and your story.
- Flash deploys brevity. There's not enough room for exposition, numerous characters, and various plotlines. However, it is not a poem.
- Establish a strong hook to grab readers' attention. Remember that it can be strong through subtlety if that's what the story requires.
- Use implication. A lot of information resides in what is left unsaid. Think about the iceberg theory and let your reader fill in the gaps.
- It is a story with an arc, but zones into specifics. Provide concrete images rather than abstract.
- Each word is a calorie; make it a nutritiously dense one.
- Invite collaboration from your readers and avoid spoon feeding them with a neat and tidy ending.
- What's your theme? Consider your subtext. What is your story a metaphor for?
- Show what's happening; don't explain why.
- Develop your characters and highlight points that make them memorable. Make your words multi-taskers. Allow them to tell us about the character as well as moving the story on.
- Keep asking, so what?
- End with a twist, a revelation, a (possible) change, or momentous non-change.
- Make readers feel something deep, or learn something about themselves. Leave them wanting more. Make them care.
- Flash can inhabit many forms such as the hermit crab. Can you fit your flash into a crossword puzzle, for example?
Ideas are everywhere. The best inspiration comes from participating and being interested. Workshops, courses, social media prompts, Quora, Reddit, newspapers, overheard conversations, incidental observations, dreams, personal experiences and so on.
I haven't even scratched the surface, but writing this has revealed how much info I've collected. The harder part is doing the thing. For now, practice is key.
If you'd like a little practice exercise, why not take up my challenge detailed below? It requires you to write a short, Twitter(X) length flash based on a prompt:
I hope you've enjoyed my collection of tips and found something of interest or use. If you have any questions, please ask. If you think anyone would like to read, please share.
Thank you for reading xx
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Teresa Renton has a first-class degree in English Linguistics and Language Creativity from the Open University. Her work has previously been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Across the Margin, Stick Figure Poetry, 101 Words, and 50 Give or Take
About the Creator
Inhaling life, exhaling stories, poetry, prose, flash or fusions. An imperfect perfectionist who writes and recycles words. I write because I love how it feels to make ink patterns & form words, like pictures, on a page.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Niche topic & fresh perspectives