So you’re stuck on one of the chapters of your draft. You don’t know how to go about developing your protagonist… or maybe, you want to introduce another character that will support the protagonist in resolving the conflict.
If you dread thinking about how, or whether a character should live or die, check this article on developing characters.
If you’re looking for other ways of effectively presenting a character’s experience, with no nonsense, then you must know how they are treated in flash fiction.
What is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is short—very short—fiction, that is nevertheless a self-contained work. Generally, flash fiction runs between 100 and 1,000 words. It’s generally for readers with little time, or short attention spans.
The terms for this fiction form can vary. Works at the shorter end of the scale—100 to 300 words—are sometimes dubbed “micro-fiction”. Slightly longer stories—overflowing to 1,500 words—are occasionally called “sudden fiction”. Anything between 1,000 and 10,000 words is a short story, or perhaps a novelette.
Despite the brevity of flash fiction, it is a complex and difficult form to master.
Some question whether it is possible, in so few words, to tell a moving story. But then, storytelling is never easy.
Well-executed flash fiction can be more memorable than longer works. There's no room for the bad writing to hide.
Take for example Ernest Hemingway’s A Very Short Story. It’s just over 600 words, but heartbreaking. Using fewer, but stronger words can better encapsulate the writer’s thoughts and the character’s emotions.
(An even shorter story, sometimes misattributed to Hemingway, is only six words: "For sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.")
How to Write Flash Fiction
Like other stories, flash fiction has characters, plots, and conflict. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should be complete and—even more than in longer forms—leave the readers no doubt about what happened or how they feel about it.
Unlike short stories or novels, there is no time to develop your characters in flash fiction. Flash fiction does not need it. Here are some suggestions on how to write successful flash fiction:
Start the story like you are about to end it. Since there is not much time to explore the setting, many flash fiction writers suggest starting the story somewhere in the middle. This will also help you cut down on unnecessary settings and conflicts. Give out a lot of information at the start, then take the readers deeper in the succeeding paragraphs.
Pick a conflict. You must give your story a resolution, so you cannot have too much going on. Get right to your main conflict—pick one, stick to it and resolve it. Remember to put it in context. The reader must know which angle to focus on.
Skip the other characters. You do not need a mass of characters in flash fiction to deliver an interesting story. Just choose your most important character, or characters, and how they feel in a certain scene. There is no room for background stories or flashbacks. Even character names take up space.
Learn the art of brevity. Using too many words can be a crutch. The poor idea can be camouflaged by flowery language. Imagine Shakespeare as rewritten on Twitter, and boil the story down to its essence. Even 100 words are more than 280 characters. Say more with fewer words. Sometimes, what you leave out is what leaves the reader haunted.
Go for the understated beauty of life. When picking a theme, look for something that people are familiar with, even take for granted, then make them see it differently. Make them care.
Don’t be afraid to trim. Even if a sentence is beautifully written, if it doesn't advance the story, get rid of it. Writing is therapeutic anyway. View the weeding down of your first draft as one of writing's alternative therapy examples… maybe not as satisfying as crafting the perfect sentence, but still enjoyable, beneficial, and necessary. But don't just throw it away. It might form the basis for another flash fiction!
Writing flash fiction may be challenging at first, but once you know what story you’d like to tell and who your character is, you can finish it in odd moments throughout your day, like while riding the subway.
For inspiration, try reading other flash fiction. The New Yorker regularly publishes interesting short, short stories. There are many anthologies of flash fiction, too, some compiled during the annual National Flash Fiction Day competitions in the UK and New Zealand. It also helps to read poetry. Poems are good at telling one critical moment or scene.
If you are planning to give flash fiction writing a try, start writing. If your draft ends with more than 1,500 words, review some of the suggestions mentioned above.
Finally, pick out the best title for your flash fiction. There are exercises that can help. Come up with at least 10 titles. The other nine might inspire other stories!
Patrick Bailey is a professional writer who works mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world, and enjoys writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them. Patrick is currently a writer for Mountain Springs Recovery as well as on his own blog.