Flash Fiction: Mastering the Art of the Shortest Short Stories
In the writing world, flash fiction is like an appetizer. These “short short” stories may be small and end quickly, but they can be so satisfying.
The trick isn’t to treat them like a short version of a longer work, but rather as an art form all its own. That’s not to say it isn’t challenging to write, because it is, but there are several strategies you can use to help you perfect your work.
5 Tips to Master Flash Fiction
Flash fiction is a relatively broad term, because while the story is always short, there are various levels to how short they actually are. Flash fiction can be as long as 1,000 words or as short as six. The strategies for concise storytelling can be applied to all versions, but it’s important to know that challenges might be different depending on how short your story will be.
These five tips are a great place to start:
1. Say a lot in a little
Like in life, sometimes what’s not said is as telling and powerful as what is said. That doesn’t mean you should be vague in your writing, but don’t worry about making the readers understand what’s going on.
It is impossible to thoroughly explain everything in short fiction, so you shouldn’t try to do it in the first place. Your readers are smart enough to figure it out for themselves.
Let’s take Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story for an example:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
So much is said in just six words. He doesn’t have to explain why the baby shoes have never been worn, because we, the readers, can draw our own conclusions about what happened.
Allow yourself to leave some spaces blank. Readers will fill in the gaps on their own.
2. Start “in medias res”
Or “into the middle of things.” Writers don’t have the luxury of including exposition, back story, or preamble when you might have a 750-word limit.
Throw your protagonist directly into the conflict. Start at the climax whenever possible.
Flash fiction is fast-paced simply by its brief nature, so don’t slow it down with unnecessary details.
3. Limit your cast of characters
It’s a lot harder to juggle your characters when you only have a few hundred words to do so. Focus on one or two people and really flesh them out instead of spreading yourself thin with five or more.
It’ll be much easier to handle and a lot more fun.
4. Use your title to your advantage
In a flash fiction class I took last year, my teacher introduced me to the beauty of the 25-word story. The idea was that a talented writer should be able to tell a compelling story in twenty-five words or less.
Most of the stories he told included a title that set up a cleverly misleading context for the reader, while the story itself dashed those expectations in a unique and surprising way. Here is one example:
Blind Date by Max Barry
She walks in and heads turn. I’m stunned. This is my setup? She looks sixteen. Course, it’s hard to tell, through the scope.
See how that worked? By using the title Blind Date, we instantly imagine a familiar scenario: two people nervously preparing for a date, maybe a dinner. But because the writer knew that’s where our minds would go, he used that to his advantage to set us up for a brilliant twist.
Not only did the last line pack a killer punch (pun intended), but he included a clue even before that. By using the term “setup,” he used his word choice wisely for double meaning. Some people might think that “setup” is a strange way to describe your date, which leads us to the clever reveal at the end that our narrator is actually a sniper.
Here is another example, this one from myself.
‘Bon appétit!’ The family resumes their lighthearted conversation, rubbing their protesting stomachs as he plucks a knife from the table and begins to carve you.
The title Thanksgiving gives us another familiar image: a family gathering for a cozy holiday with delicious food and a warm atmosphere. But with one twist of a word at the end, the story takes on a whole new meaning, and a dark one at that. “You” shifts the gaze from the happy family to the victim who is about to be the family’s meal.
Use relatable events or situations to your advantage to set the reader up for one thing, then deny the usual emotion associated with the context to create a successful plot twist.
5. Word choice is key
If you can say something in a paragraph, chances are you can say it in a single sentence. Look at the words you choose. Do you rely on adverbs or vague adjectives? Are there stronger options?
Much like in poetry, where it is essential to be descriptive and specific, flash fiction requires the writer to do the same. You have to be conservative with your words, so each one has to matter.
The Art of the Short Short Story
Flash fiction is a challenge for many (myself included!), but with the right preparation and enough practice, you can create stories that will leave readers breathless, in stitches, or in tears.
Remember the phrase “brevity is the soul of wit.” Just because your story is short doesn’t mean that it can’t be full of life.
What tactics do you use when writing flash fiction? Let us know in the comments.
Try your hand at a twenty-five word story. Come up with a title that sets the stage for a certain scene, then, using the tips listed above, turn the story completely on its head.
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