What is Flash Fiction?
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
If you've seen this story before, congrats: you know what flash fiction is. Whether these six words were written by Ernest Hemingway, Arthur C. Clarke, or The Spokane Press doesn’t really matter. It’s a premier example of everything fiction’s shortest form can do.
In a world of novels, essays, and short stories, flash fiction is underdog prose. Scarcely discussed and often poorly defined, it becomes that much more exciting, edgy, and experimental. Twist endings and sudden violence are hallmarks of the form, where just six words can allude to the tragic death of a child.
Flash fiction is dangerous — it asks the writer to surrender all safety nets and let a mere smattering of sentences speak for themselves. But it can also be extremely rewarding, if done right. Before we get into that, however, let’s gauge what it actually is.
- What is flash fiction
- How to write flash fiction
- Flash fiction in action: a case study
- Where to submit your flash fiction
What is flash fiction?
Flash fiction is a medium of brief and enclosed stories. Its average word count ranges anywhere from five to 1,500 words, but the consensus is that the maximum tops out at 2,000.
Also called short shorts, nanotales, micro-stories, postcard fiction, or (a personal favorite) napkin fiction, flash fiction isn’t just a pared-down short story. Its focus isn’t necessarily on plot or characters, though it should still have both. Instead, the emphasis is placed on movement: each sentence must peel back a new layer that wasn’t visible at first. If a line (or even a word) doesn't progress the story or reveal more about a character, it probably won't belong in this medium.
How did flash fiction come about?
With roots in folklore and collections like Grimms' Fairy Tales and Aesop's Fables, (very) short stories have been around for centuries. They fell out of fashion for a while, but recently came back in a big way — not entirely surprising for a generation that publish 140-character 'stories' every day. Depending on who you ask, there are up to six different categories:
- Flash fiction: Max 1500 words.
- Sudden fiction: Max 750 words.
- Drabble, or microfiction: Max 100 words.
- Dribble, or minisaga: Max 50 words.
- Twitterature: Max 280 characters.
- Six-word story: Any story with a single-digit word count is a category unto itself.
But outside of vague word count parameters, it’s a difficult genre to categorize. As renowned flash fictionist Michael Martone put it:
“This form, ‘flash,’ wants play. It can’t be categorized. It can’t be taught. It knows not to know.”
So instead, we must focus on what makes it good… which we’ll explore next.
How to write good flash fiction
Micro-stories can provide the opportunity to experiment in a low stakes environment — challenging you to spotlight a slight story while hinting at a larger one and squeeze more out of every word and detail. They also allow you to engage readers who may be short on time (or attention).
While writing them isn’t necessarily easy, it certainly isn’t as time-consuming as writing a novel. If you write short shorts regularly between chapters (or bouts of writer’s block), you can share them quickly and often to build a fanbase that will yield dividends come publication time.
If you decide that writing flash fiction is right for you, here’s how to do it… and how not to.
DO tell a story.
Believe it or not, even a micro-story should, yes, still be a story. As we mentioned earlier, don’t stress plot (read: have too many events happening), but do make sure that you have all the other mainstays of a story: a hook, a conflict, an ending. Flash fiction isn’t poetry — it demands tension. That’s why starting at the flashpoint, or the center of the conflict, is a common way to kick off a short short.
Map out your story beforehand to identify the beginning, middle, and end, and ensure momentum and movement. Since your ending should impact readers’ emotions (short shorts are self-contained, not serialized, so cliffhangers are ill-advised), don’t be afraid to get personal. Some of the best micro-stories stem directly from the author’s experience.
DO NOT tell too much.
This actually means two things:
- The intuitive: show don’t tell; and
- The counterintuitive: don’t include too much!
The best way to avoid this latter pitfall? KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. Mapping the movement is fine, but if you can't remember the rest of the plot without writing it down, you probably have too much going on. Instead, be concise and let the mood carry the writing.
In addition to extraneous plot points, you should cut out any excess characters, unnecessary dialogue, or (gratuitous) kissing. Remember, great flash fiction is very different from bad fan fiction.
DO write with the form in mind.
If there’s a theme to this blog post so far, it’s that micro-stories are their own thing. So, treat them as such! Operate within the boundaries of the form, and embrace its conventions:
- Intense prose,
- Attentive language,
- A shining narrative voice,
- A powerful, central image, and
- The amplest meaning in the fewest words.
To best work within a 1,500-word frame, don’t just rework your more extensive ideas to fit the constraints. If you write a long first draft before cutting back, that’s okay. But if you start writing a short story just to cut it down to meet a word count, chances are you’ll follow the conventions of short stories instead of short short ones.
That said, many mine their micro-stories from old paragraphs they loved that nevertheless didn’t make it into their novel’s final draft. Take the opportunity to shine light on your previous prose that didn’t totally fit into an overarching story.
DO NOT be too obvious.
As blunt and straightforward as sudden fiction should be, it should not be boring, clichéd, or hokey — just because it’s short doesn’t mean it should artlessly blunt. Obvious language is even less impactful in a couple of paragraphs than in a novel (and it’s pretty bad in the latter, too), so make sure your wording is original. And don’t be afraid to experiment! The stakes have never been lower.
Other common mistakes include sermonizing and relying on overused settings with built-in drama, such as funerals (or family holidays). Writing 1,000 words will go by in the blink of an eye, so take advantage of the time you save — be inventive and thorough.
DO be enigmatic.
Like the intriguing detail Hemingway used to end “baby shoes,” good flash fiction will often finish on an enigmatic and understated note. Surrender all the crucial information early on, and use the following paragraphs to dig deeper. The ending doesn’t need to be overly dramatic. Instead, it should “ring like a bell,” giving clarity to the prior passage.
To do so, think of your story like a joke. Start with a set up, and end with a punchline. Granted, not every ending needs to blow a reader's mind. But if you manage to surprise them, or even side-step their expectations, you’re probably doing something right.
DO NOT be ambiguous.
This is the inverse of the last point — an enigmatic ending can be enticing, but an enigmatic beginning will only confuse. The rest of your details should be clear and articulate. Mince words, rather than writing yourself in circles. Any sentence that does not offer a distinct, new detail is unnecessary.
Additionally, keep in mind that POV shifts, jumps in time, and exposition or extraneous context (like background history) will muddy up a story. So, to put it simply, don’t do too many things at once. Pick one theme, and build on it from the ground up.
Flash fiction in action: a case study
Question: What do Margaret Atwood, Paulo Coelho, David Foster Wallace, Jamaica Kincaid, and H.P. Lovecraft have in common?
Answer: They all wrote micro-stories… and wrote them well, too. Looking at their work will hopefully help us replicate their success.
Hemingway, another prominent and prolific practitioner of the form, wrote the following:
“They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.”
The first sentence serves as a violent hook, and summarizes the entire plot of the story. The rest simply digs deeper into the scene.
The next few sentences feature evocative and sensory language, helping the reader immerse themselves in the moment. Then, at the midpoint, he adds a new detail that will change the course of the story: “One of the ministers was sick with typhoid.”
Then comes a series of simple, straightforward sentences. They don’t waste words or move in circles — each builds on the last and moves the story forward with momentum and intent.
Finally, it ends on a gut punch. The last line brings new meaning to the first: the execution of six bureaucrats becomes the execution of a sick, dying man. While the story began like the first line of a newspaper report, it ends with us right in the room, illustrating the cruelty of the act. Hemingway gives just enough to empathize with this man — and to make us feel complicit for being so blasé. The ending rounds the story out, but ultimately remains enigmatic.
Why did Hemingway end on this detail? The answer doesn’t matter as much as the work he put into creating the question.
Where to submit your flash fiction
Now that you know how to write your own short shorts, let’s figure out to how to get them in front of readers. There are plenty of publications that accept micro submissions semi-regularly. To name a few:
- Rose Metal Press
- Red Hen Press
- Flash Fiction Magazine
- Smokelong Quarterly
- FORTH Magazine
- Vestal Review
- 365 Tomorrows
- Tin House Flash Fridays
- Akashic Books
- Literary Orphans
Remember, when it comes to flash fiction, don’t focus on what makes it good or bad. It is an experimental form that strives without criteria. But you must first learn the guidelines of the form first before you think about breaking them. Take a chance, and give yourself permission to write in shades of gray.
One of the best parts of short shorts? They're stories small enough to fit in the comment section of your favorite writing blog! Put these tips into action and leave us your own flash fiction in the comment box below.