There’s a lot of chat around the Web about flash fiction: some love it, some loathe it. Those who loathe it appear to feel there is little value in the form: it is too short for decent plot or character development; other creative elements, such as setting and dialogue, are often perfunctory; it is a lazy form of writing, banged out by wannabe writers who don’t have the patience and dexterity to write in a longer form; it’s banal, and often poorly executed. Some of these criticisms, in my opinion, have merit.
In the other camp, those who love flash fiction argue that it takes real skill to craft a story out of few words; that the form offers readers the chance to invest, or participate, in the story by ‘filling in the gaps’; that it teaches writers to be concise with their ideas and words, and therefore, makes them better writers; that it’s fun, and can stimulate creativity, especially when looking down the barrel of a longer work is just too daunting. And, in my opinion, the proponents of flash fiction also make a good case.
As someone who reads a lot of flash fiction (via the FoW flash fiction competition, and elsewhere) and who writes the odd bit here and there, I feel the truth is somewhere in between (where else would it be!). For a reader, flash fiction can be just as powerful, heart-warming, or gut wrenching as a longer work; in fact, because it is so short, the emotional impact of a flash fiction piece arrives sooner, making the story payoff more intense. And, when well-written, flash fiction certainly opens a space for the reader to imagine into the story, and to contemplate its ideas long after they’ve put the work aside.
For the writer, the shortest form of fiction has multiple benefits: It is fun. As a professional writer, I sometimes forget that fun is an important aspect of writing; if it ain’t fun, then why are we doing it? Flash fiction, because it is quick to write, also helps us feel productive and keeps our imaginations turning over. Most importantly, because flash fiction demands that we are concise with our ideas and with our words, we learn to write lean and, as such, we are forced – boot camp-ish – to become better at our craft.
Where the detractors of the short fiction form are correct, however, is in their assessment that much flash fiction is poorly executed. To my way of thinking, this occurs when a writer approaches flash fiction with the idea that, because it is short, it will be easy. The reality is that, in some respects, writing short fiction is far more difficult than writing a longer work. The reason for this is longer pieces of fiction are more forgiving. In a lengthy short story (say 5,000 words and up), in a novella, and in a novel, there is space and time to develop all aspects of the work, and for readers to forget (or, at least, pardon) small faux pas that may slip past in the writing/editing process. But in flash fiction, where space and time are limited, the writer must nail every aspect of the story and be faultless in their technique, because mistakes, inconsistencies, gaps etc. stand out as though lit bright— in neon.
The other reason flash fiction is difficult to write well is that it must still contain all of the elements of a longer piece: a plot arc, an effective structure, an inferred backstory, character/s, setting, dialogue, POV, and thematic richness. However, most of these elements are implied rather than apparent in a flash fiction story. This is difficult to do effectively. By way of example, consider Margaret Atwood’s six-word short story: ‘Longed for him. Got him. Shit.’ (read other six-word stories here). On the page, we can see a linear and simple plot, with an initiating conflict, some tension, and a climax. But, off the page, there is:
An implied 1st person narrator.
An implied romance (back story) and an implied future (new life).
Implied plot events: e.g. a first date, a marriage, an event/s that sours the relationship.
Implied dialogue between the lovers.
Implied actions, thoughts and feelings.
Implied thematic resonance.
These implied elements are what make flash fiction hard to do well. The writer must deliver a story that is satisfyingly complete, yet which opens spaces beneath the words where the reader can imagine into, and extend, the narrative; and they must use evocative language in a concise manner that ensures every word counts. If, however, a writer can master the flash fiction form (or, indeed, the short story form) then – as a mentor once said to me – they are well on their way to mastering the novella, or the novel.
There are a number of techniques we can apply when writing flash fiction that will assist with meeting the challenges of the form:
1. Limit the scope of your idea:
Words are precious in flash fiction, therefore, focus on a small part of a complex issue and explore this in depth. For example, the last minutes of a tense family dinner, which could expose the nature of familial relationships.
2. Shortcut backstory:
As Margaret Atwood’s story demonstrates, backstory doesn’t need to be implicit. If backstory is needed, imply as much as possible/necessary.
3. Start with the action:
As with all short story, start at the point of conflict (i.e. the initiating plot event that drives the story). Avoid waffle. Begin at the point of action: a man running; a bomb as it goes off; opening the cupboard to a monster. Only describe what is needed; let the reader fill in the gaps.
4. Use a powerful image:
For example: a storm-ravaged beach; a child crying on a busy street; a full moon.
5. Build tension:
Keep the reader questioning what is happening and why, but make sure to provide a solid payoff when the story reaches the climax. Only use a ‘twist’ if it can be set up properly.
6. Limit the number of characters:
This is short fiction, therefore, focus on one or two characters, and use actions, dialogue, and concise description to show who they are.
7. Titles matter!
Think of a title as a handshake. It is the first experience a reader has with a story. It should offer some clues about what they are about to engage with, and deepen their understanding of the thematic purpose of the work.
8. Every line counts – especially the last one:
Forgettable fiction fizzes out. Memorable fiction holds the reader until the last line, and leaves them with something to contemplate.
9. Write more than needed; edit ruthlessly:
Stories are made – and broken – in the editing process. Write the first draft with your heart; write as much as you need too, with passion, flair, and creative abandon. Then, edit with your head. Be cool, rationale, and critical. Slash and burn any word that doesn’t ADD to the effect of the story. Rewrite, rewrite and rewrite until you have a concise story for your reader to enjoy.
If flash fiction is what you want to write, read, read, read. Find out how others are handling the form, study their techniques, be aware of what they are writing (originality is king!), and if they are pushing the boundaries of the genre. Successful writers are our mentors; learn from them.
Happy Flash Fictioning!