Five Basic Tips For Writing Flash Fiction

2013 Artwork Flash fiction sketch

When I was about seventeen, I loved writing flash fiction. However, back then, I hadn’t even heard the term “flash fiction” before and I used to refer to my flash fiction stories as “fragments”. Even though everything I wrote when I was seventeen was embarrassingly badly-written, I still really like flash fiction even though I don’t really write it that often these days.

In case you’ve never heard of it before, “flash fiction” refers to very short stories which are typically less than a thousand words long. This can be quite a fun genre to write in, especially since flash fiction stories can be written relatively quickly and, when they’re well-written, they can have an almost poetic quality to them.

However, writing flash fiction is very slightly different to writing “ordinary” short fiction. There aren’t a huge number of differences, but there are a few:

1) One setting: Generally speaking, flash fiction stories should only really take place in one location. This is mainly because you probably won’t have the space to introduce and describe two different settings properly in such a small amount of words.

In many ways, it’s probably best to think of flash fiction as being a written version of a single scene from a film. In most films, each scene takes place in a single location because it makes sense in both practical and dramatic terms.

There are obviously exceptions to this and there’s no cast-iron rule against having more than one setting in a flash fiction story, but it’s generally a good idea to have all of the events of the story take place in one location.

2) Structure: Since flash fiction stories are meant to be very short stories which only present a short moment in time or a single event, these stories don’t always need a traditional “beginning, middle and end” structure.

Yes, if a traditional structure works well with your flash fiction story, then use it. But, you don’t have to use these for flash fiction stories. When you are working with these kinds of story lengths, the content of your story matters a lot more than the structure.

3) Characters: For obvious reasons, flash fiction stories should have fewer characters than “ordinary” short stories. In other words, you’ll probably only have room for three characters at the most (including the narrator, if your story is written from a first-person perspective).

Unless you’re writing a character study, you won’t really have the space to develop your characters fully in a flash fiction story – so, you will have to give your readers a general impression of your characters in a fairly economical way. If you’re writing from a first-person perspective, this can include presenting the narrator’s personality through their narrative voice and their brief descriptions of other characters. If you’re writing from a third-person perspective, you can’t really do this, so you might want to just include two characters.

It’s also a good idea to keep your descriptions of your characters fairly brief and let your readers’ imaginations fill in the rest of the details. Because of the length, your readers probably aren’t expecting detailed descriptions of everyone in the story.

Dialogue is another thing you can use to include characterisation in your flash fiction story without wasting too many words or slowing your story down. In fact, some flash fiction stories can consist of pretty much nothing but dialogue.

4) One Event: Generally speaking, flash fiction stories don’t usually have room for sub-plots. There isn’t really room for them. You could possibly hint at a sub-plot (eg: if your characters seem like they might be in love with each other or if they used to be in love with each other) but your story should only really revolve around one main event, conversation or short sequence of events.

Another reason for avoiding sub-plots in flash fiction stories is because they can distract your readers from the main plot of your story and it also means that you’ll have less space to present and develop your main plot too.

5) It isn’t a technical challenge: Despite everything I’ve said in this article, writing flash fiction shouldn’t feel like it’s some kind of intellectual exercise or technical challenge. If your story idea is too big for a flash fiction story, then just turn it into an “ordinary” short story rather than cutting it down to a shorter length. The best flash fiction stories, like the best poems, usually kind of evolve spontaneously almost of their own accord.

Likewise, the “thousand words or less” thing is more of a general guideline than a cast-iron rule (unless you’re submitting anything to a writing contest – if you’re doing this then you should always stick to the word limits). In other words, if your story is 1010 words, then it still might be a flash fiction story. But if it’s 1500 words, then it’s probably a short story.

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Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂

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2 comments on “Five Basic Tips For Writing Flash Fiction

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