I enjoy writing fiction at pretty much every length, from novels and short stories to the more obscure novellas and novelettes, but one of my favorites is also one of the shortest. I’m talking about flash fiction. Generally, flash means stories that top out at 1,000 words in length, although some publishers set the cutoff at 700, 500, or as low as 300 words. Below that, and you start getting into microfiction, which requires a skill and discipline I have never managed to obtain.
Writing flash is challenging, but I think it teaches some valuable lessons that are applicable to writing longer fiction. I also find it a great way to generate story ideas. The truth is, most of my flash stories don’t work. That’s because the premise of the story is too damn big for 1,000 words. I never discover that until I’ve written the story, but the simple act of writing it fleshes out the premise and sometimes serves as a road map for where the story should go (longer). Some of my more successful short stories have started out as unsuccessful flash stories. Of course, I don’t set out to write unsuccessful flash, but on the rare occasions I’ve managed to pull one off, it’s usually because I kept the following three things in mind:
- It still needs a plot. It’s so easy to fall into the premise trap with flash fiction. You come up with a great premise for a flash piece, set up that premise, rapidly hit your 1,000 words, and then realize nothing has actually happened in your story. A flash story still needs a beginning, a middle, and an end; the characters still need an arc; and the story still needs conflict and resolution. I’ve encountered publishers who are more lenient with some of the elements I listed above and might let you get away with a vignette if they really like it, but I’d advise going for the whole shebang. If you can pull it off, I think your chances at publications are higher. That said, in my opinion, fitting all that stuff into a flash story is a bit easier if you follow suggestion number two.
- Keep it contained. There are probably writers out there who can turn flash into sweeping epics with dozens of locations and characters. I am not one of those writers. When I’ve had success with a flash story (read that, actually got it published), I’ve kept the scope of the story small. Often times these stories feature just a few characters (or even just one), and the setting is usually limited as well: a single room, a small stretch of road, a restaurant. Certainly, you should hint at a larger world though some well placed exposition, but, in my opinion, the fewer elements you introduce that demand more of your rapidly dwindling word count, the better.
- Write it, then trim it. You don’t have a lot of words to play with in flash fiction, so you have to be judicious with how you dole them out. That can be difficult to do when you’re just trying to get the story down on the page, so I typically avoid any kind of editing for word count while I’m writing. When I finish my first draft, which is almost always over word count, I go back and take a good, hard look for stuff I don’t need. For me, that’s usually unnecessary or long-winded descriptions of people, places, and things, extraneous adjectives and adverbs, or the occasional entire sentence or paragraph that prompts me to ask myself, “Why the fuck did you write that?” That kind of self editing is good for a writer at any length, but since flash fiction rarely leaves you any choice in the matter, each story becomes a great exercise in brevity.
Care to try your hand at writing flash fiction? Here are some fun ways to do it.
I used to MC a biweekly flash competition out at the Shock Totem forums. (Shock Totem is a most excellent publisher of dark fiction.) The contest is called the One-Hour Flash Fiction Challenge and the rules are simple: someone posts a prompt (usually a photo), then you have an hour to write a story under 1,000 words based on that prompt. When the hour is up, all the authors read the stories, give feedback, and vote on a winner. The winner gets to post the prompt for the next competition. It’s a lot of fun, challenging as hell, and I say without reservation that running and participating in that contest for over a year made me a better writer. The contest is still running, so if high-stress writing and the criticism of strangers is your thing, check it out.
The second flash-oriented exercise I’d like to call to your attention is a contest with real cash money prizes. One of my favorite publications, The Molotov Cocktail, is holding their second Flash Monster contest. The rules are simple: write a flash story that includes a monster of some kind and submit it by the deadline. Their team of editors will read all the stories and award cash prizes to the top three. Sure, I’m a little biased, I took third place in the first Flash Monster contest (you can read that story here), but The Molotov Cocktail is a nifty lit-zine that publishes great horror and speculative flash fiction, so you should check them out anyway.
So have a look at Shock Totem or The Molotov Cocktail, and if the mood strikes you, fry up some flash.