Flash Fiction: What's It All About?
By Becky Tuch
Flash Fiction: Stories under 2,000 words. Seems easy enough, right? Just get rid of rambling digressions, eliminate flashbacks, cut extraneous descriptions and presto! Mini-fiction nuggets!
Actually, there’s a lot more to flash fiction than one might initially realize. Part poetry, part narrative, flash fiction–also known as sudden fiction, micro fiction, short short stories, and quick fiction—is a genre that is deceptively complex. At the same time, writing these short shorts can be incredibly rewarding. Distilling experience into a few pages or, in some cases a few paragraphs, forces writers to pay close attention to every loaded conversation, every cruel action, every tender gesture, and every last syllable in every single word.
I am currently exploring the world of flash fiction, and absolutely loving it. So I asked some experts to weigh in on what makes this genre tick, what to do, what not to do, and where to look for inspiration. Here is what they said:
Start at the flashpoint – By definition Flash begins at the moment of conflict, when all the action is nearly complete. Think: the final gesture of a love affair, or the start of a good old-fashioned gang fight. All of this is to say we need to avoid preambles or introductions (unless working on a specific conceit).
Focus on the powerful image(s) - Find one or more powerful images to focus your story on. A wartorn street. An alien sunset. A Going Out of Business sign. They say a picture worth a thousand words. Paint a picture with words. It doesn’t hurt to have something happen inside that picture. It is a story after all.
Hit them where it hurts - Go for an ending that offers an emotional impact. As flash writers, we are in the punch-in-the-gut business. Play against expectations with a sense of narrative mystery or devastating twist, a poignant implication or declarative last sentence that leaves the reader breathless, and going back for more.
I think of flash fiction as being one part story, one part poem. Plot matters less than mood and telling details–yet it does matter. I try to search for a subtle pivot, a surprising juxtaposition. I try to write to the drift of a story rather than in its grain. The joy of flash fiction as a writer and a reader is found not only in the words of the story, but in what is left out–the absences can be almost spectral, haunting what’s been told, only guessed at. Sometimes, a short short is like playing the Ouji board. You have to settle for a small part of the story and let your imagination communicate with the other side to know the rest of it.
1. Be concise without strangling your plot and characters.
2. Remember to deliver your message. No one likes empty envelopes.
3. Make your prose intense. You can’t burn the reader.
4. Learn from the birds. Tweet, tweet, tweet(er).
5. Use prompts to hone your skills.
1. Go in circles. You don’t have room for that.
2. Try to wear many hats. Flash has space only for one or two.
3. Mince words. You are writing a flash and not making hamburger patties.
4. Be afraid to experiment. You don’t want to repeat what others have written.
5. Forget that flash is a story and not a poem or essay.
Don’t mix plaids and stripes: it’s a tiny story so pick one theme.
Don’t wear white shoes after Labor Day: holidays do not create built-in drama; create your own tension.
Don’t overdo the cleavage: a sex scene in flash fiction has to be about more than sex.
Don’t over-accessorize: flash fiction is not the place for a crowd of characters.
Do choose classics: pay close attention to language.
Do opt for understated elegance: an overly dramatic story overpowers flash.
Do remember that charcoal gray is the new black: in the microscopic world of flash fiction, subtlety is key.
TED MCLOOF, Creative Writing professor at University of Arizona:
DO: Read poetry. Short fiction handles narrative very well, gives it shape and frames it. But flash fiction isn’t narrative, or at least not traditionally so. It isn’t about a scene; it’s about a moment, or a series of moments. Poetry is a good way to learn how to do that: poets are adept at distilling the entire surface of a death or a lonely childhood or a violent break-up into a single object.
DON’T: Plan to write flash fiction. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you begin a story with a preconceived word count. It isn’t healthy for the story, or for the writer. Just begin writing, and if what comes out organically ends up being under a thousand words, well, then, there you go.
DO: Save your babies. We’re often, in fiction, advised to “kill our babies,” in other words, to throw out or delete a paragraph you really loved from a story in which it doesn’t quite fit. Flash fiction is a chance, I think, to allow those great paragraphs, shifting around in purgatory, to finally see the light of day.
DON’T: Think. It’s for suckers. Write in a fit of rage, in a blush of love, in a fury, in a depression, in a drunken stupor. It’s less than a thousand words; it’s not like you have to maintain the mood for weeks and weeks while you whittle it down. Just get pissed off, open a document, and vent–a lot of it will end up being total shit. But somewhere in there, you’re likely to strike gold.
LAURA McCMILLAN and JOHN M. CUSICK, Editors of Armchair/Shotgun:
DO surprise the reader.
Flash-fiction is like writing a joke: start with a set-up, then overturn the reader’s expectations with the punch line.
DO leave yourself room to finish the story you start.
Writers sometimes get carried away setting up their stories, and then have to cut the end short. Map out your story: allot space for set-up, body, and a satisfying resolution. Maintaining a consistent level of detail throughout can help prevent the sense that the ending is rushed.
DON’T give up on context.
A lot of FF writers go straight for the plot in an effort to pack in maximum action. This can be awesome, but it’s not the only way! One of the most impressive things about Hemingway’s famous six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) is that in just two words, he tells us this is a classified ad in a newspaper AND evokes the image of a grieving parent sitting down at a worn kitchen table to write that ad.
DO take time to find the right word.
Take advantage of shades of meaning to paint the picture you want with maximum economy. If “blue” doesn’t cut it, you could try “a vibrant shade of blue-green that reminded him of that time he flew over the Caribbean,” sure. But if you’re limited to 300 words, it’s a lot faster to say “cerulean.”
Paradoxically, there has to be a feeling of plenty of space in the flash piece. What doesn’t work is writing something that makes sense longer and then trying to squish it down to the target length. When the author is trimming and compressing, yet still trying to cover what was in the longer original, what gets squeezed out, too often, is the juice. Better to conceive something that can be told at this length with some room left over, so that it can feel adroit, complete, and even lavish.
I hesitate to give any do’s and don’ts in a creative field. Some of the best writers have broken rules, or bent them a bit. I’d rather tell writers to avoid the number one problem I see in unsuccessful flash fiction: A large number of writers who experiment with the form don’t understand it, and as a result, produce a short piece of writing, not a complete story or a vivid sketch. They make the mistake of thinking that just ending a piece of writing sooner rather than later makes it flash. Their prose is long-winded, their sentences unremarkable, and their sense of characterization and plot pretty nonexistent. The form definitely needs to be studied–look at masters such as Hemingway and Kawabata, and contemporary flashers such as Michael Martone, Meg Pokrass, Sherrie Flick, and Stuart Dybek (to name just a few). Flash isn’t a fad, it’s an art; and while I hope people can have fun with it, its pursuit should still be taken seriously.