The Short and Short of Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is defined as a style of fictional literature or fiction of extreme brevity. And while there’s no widely accepted rule as to the proper length of a flash fiction piece, I’ve seen word counts cap between three hundred and a thousand words. Although usually containing standard story elements such as a protagonist, conflict, obstacles, complications, and resolution, the limited word length can result in some of these elements to be merely hinted at or implied in the storyline.

David Gaffney wrote an interesting article for The Guardian entitled, Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction, which included the following six steps:

1. Start in the middle. You don’t have time in this very short form to set scenes and build character.

2. Don’t use too many characters. You won’t have time to describe your characters when you’re writing ultra-short. Even a name may not be useful in a micro-story unless it conveys a lot of additional story information or saves you words elsewhere.

3. Make sure the ending isn’t at the end. In micro-fiction there’s a danger that much of the engagement with the story takes place when the reader has stopped reading. To avoid this, place the denouement in the middle of the story, allowing us time, as the rest of the text spins out, to consider the situation along with the narrator, and ruminate on the decisions his characters have taken. If you’re not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or “pull back to reveal” endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel – the drum roll and cymbal crash. Avoid this by giving us almost all the information we need in the first few lines, using the next few paragraphs to take us on a journey below the surface.

4. Sweat your title. Make it work for a living.

5. Make your last line ring like a bell. The last line is not the ending – we had that in the middle, remember – but it should leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the story but rather take us into a new place; a place where we can continue to think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant. A story that gives itself up in the last line is no story at all, and after reading a piece of good micro-fiction we should be struggling to understand it, and, in this way, will grow to love it as a beautiful enigma. And this is also another of the dangers of micro-fiction; micro-stories can be too rich and offer too much emotion in a powerful one-off injection, overwhelming the reader, flooding the mind. A few micro-shorts now and again will amaze and delight – one after another and you feel like you’ve been run over by a lorry full of fridges.

6. Write long, then go short. Create a lump of stone from which you chip out your story sculpture. Stories can live much more cheaply than you realise, with little deterioration in lifestyle. But do beware: writing micro-fiction is for some like holidaying in a caravan – the grill may well fold out to become an extra bed, but you wouldn’t sleep in a fold-out grill for the rest of your life.

And if I might add a few tips to Mr. Gaffney’s list:

  • Do your homework and read a ton of flash fiction stories. Stop groaning, they’re ultra-short.
  • Pay close attention to story settings and character development
  • Tell a proper story. Having a character deliver a monolog or go off on a diatribe, or spending the word count describing a setting, doesn’t help you hone your brevity writing skills.
  • Do not toss away your story if it happens to be too big and you just can’t whittle it down to size. Instead, pat yourself on the back for creating a short story. Every cloud, right?
  • If you’re using a word processing program, make use of the built-in word count feature.

For the record, extremely short fiction isn’t a brand spanking new concept. In fact, Ernest Hemingway once wrote the following six-word story:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

According to sources, the author considered it to be the finest prose he had ever written. Even more remarkable, it comes in under the stringent 140 character count of Twitter’s tweet fiction (see: To Make A Long Story Shortest). Way to go, Hemmy!

Sally forth and be flash writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Writing Joke of the Day: Punctuation Parable

Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?


Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?