Monday, February 6, 2012

Writing Flash Fiction

"That sounds so hard!" people often say to me after hearing I'm working on or have published a flash fiction story.

Flash fiction—generally defined as a short story of 1000 words or less—offers unusual challenges, but that makes it fun. To tell a story and then prune it and prune it again and prune it some more and possibly even prune it yet another time until it's under 1000 words and has no flab left whatsoever is like a game and improves one's skills in trimming.

Some standard short fiction markets accept flash, and surprisingly many markets specialize in flash fiction (see, for example, lists here and here), so writing flash is more than an exercise.  (Note, though, that some markets pay little or nothing for flash.)

In this post, I'll give some hints about how I approach a flash fiction story and then summarize tips I found on the Web.

Some flash markets offer prompts. I like starting with a prompt because someone else has already spent the time deciding whether the idea could be satisfactorily turned into a flash story. I then make lists of possible meanings of the prompt and/or draw a mind map. As I play with ideas, I keep in mind that I need to tell the story with:
  • as few characters as possible
  • only one plotline
  • only one character arc
  • one scene, if possible, or in a few short scenes
  • enough description to create a strong setting
  • words that create a consistent mood throughout
  • a first sentence that intrigues readers
  • a last paragraph that leaves readers satisfied that they have read a complete story (that is, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end)
I then write the story concisely, but without worrying about the word count. My first draft is usually 1300 to 1600 words. Then I start cutting.
  • First, I get rid of adjectives, adverbs, and phrases that aren't needed.
  • Second, I try to strengthen each verb and noun.
  • Third, I check the word count. I usually am still well above 1000 words, so I look for secondary plot lines (yes, they creep in when I'm not looking) that can be cut, weak dialogue that can be condensed or removed, setting details that can be cut or revealed through action instead of description, and characters that can be cut or combined.
  • Fourth, now that I'm below 1000 words, I revise each paragraph to end on a strong word. As part of this step, I look for passive sentences and test whether rewording them makes them better.
  • Fifth, I add details of action, character voice, and description to make the characters and setting feel as alive as in a long story.
  • Sixth, now that I am above 1000 words again, I repeat all the steps.
  • Seventh, after several rounds of cutting and adding, I polish each sentence and each paragraph so that it is as clean and sharp as possible, then cut or add again as necessary. 
The rounds of cutting and polishing are more important in flash than in other fiction. Flash is so short that a break in the mood or a wrong word can demote a story from "great" to "good." Also, you have time to make your story a perfect jewel (compared with longer stories, with which the revision and polishing time seems to go up exponentially with increasing word count), and your competition will probably have taken advantage of the extra time to do just that.

I searched on the Internet for other people's guidelines for writing flash fiction, and here are some tips I found that sound potentially useful:
  • Use allusion to familiar events or literature so that you can avoid explanation. For example, if you have a character refer to President Lincoln, you don't need to give the date or country or describe the clothes.
  • Use clichés and tropes for the same reason.
  • Have a twist or a surprise at the end.
  • Try removing everything except the dialogue.
  • Give your main a single compelling need.
  • Have only a single theme.
  • Get right to the story; don't use introductions.
  • Give as little backstory as possible; imply the rest.
  • Keep the action in one location if possible.
  • Focus on a character or an event or an idea, not all three.
  • In complete opposition to my own recommendation, one Website suggested setting a timer (for an hour, say) and aiming to complete the writing and editing before the bell goes off, because flash fiction "shouldn't be something you belabor."

Thanks for stopping by. I'll have a special post on Monday the 13th with news and promotion and be back to regular blogging with a Mardi Gras–themed post on February 21.

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I actually really like the cutting part. Not sure why, but it is part of the most fun in writing, whittling down, paring down, making it lean and mean.

William Doonan said...

A thousand words is a luxury - I try to keep it under 150 words. Any fewer, and you can't really get an arc. Any more, and you're just trying to be William Faulkner.

Check out my award-winning "Lady Anaconda"

Liane Spicer said...

I wasn't aware that 1000 words was considered flash fiction. Thought it was much shorter.

Honing like this is a great exercise for those who, like me, tend to overwrite.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES: Me, too!

WILLIAM: I've never tried that length. Sounds challenging. I'll check out your "Lady Anaconda" to see how you write that briefly.

LIANE: I tend to write tightly, but even so, I still need to prune about 10%. So I find writing flash fiction a good exercise in peeling away layers of story and still having a complete story left.foxica

Dayton Ward said...

I love the challenge of writing good, tight, flash fiction. For a time, I was contributing FF to a site specializing in crime/noir stories, and I even started doing a serial, with each installment as a piece of flash. I'd post each piece, then have to figure out where I was taking the story next, and I didn't have the luxury of going back and revising the earlier installments. It was a fun way to flex the writer muscles.