I write a lot of flash fiction, and I’ve been lucky enough to publish a fair amount of it. What follows is my basic formula for writing stories under 1,000 words. It is not, of course, the only way to write flash fiction or even the best way to write flash fiction. It’s just my way. Okay, with that disclaimer up, let’s dive in.
Before I get to my formula, let’s establish a few things that flash fiction needs no matter how you go about writing it. It needs to have a plot and it needs to be a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. My formula doesn’t ensure these things will happen (trust me), but when I follow my self-imposed rules, I find they’re a little easier to pull off.
Here are the three guidelines I generally follow when I write flash.
- Start near the end. What I mean is begin your story as close to the inciting action or event as you can. With 1,000 words or less, you simply don’t have the space for a lot of setup, you gotta get to the meat right away. I notice in a lot of my flash, at least the ones I’ve managed to publish, the inciting event, whatever it is, generally happens in the first few paragraphs, leaving me a lot of space to resolve the conflict I’ve set up.
- Keep your character count low. I like a lot of dialog in my stories, and in flash that means I have to watch how many characters are taking up my precious word count with all that talking. As such, I often don’t have more than two characters in my flash fiction (speaking characters, anyway). That way, they can have lots of dialog, which is how I generally prefer to tell a story, and I don’t eat up too much space with it. Having only a few characters also lets me spend some time developing them, again, usually through dialog. Of course, you can have more than two characters in a flash story, and I’ve managed to pull that off a few times, but I probably would still limit speaking parts to two or three.
- Limited locations. Same idea as keeping the cast of characters small. I tend to limit the locations of my flash fiction to one or maybe two spots. That way, I don’t have to worry about transitions from one place to another, and I don’t need to spend a lot of time describing new locations. If you read any of my flash, you’ll probably notice a lot of it takes place in a single spot, usually somewhere small and cozy like a bar, a bedroom, a house, a church, and so on.
So, that’s my basic formula, and, again, it is not the end-all-be-all of writing flash fiction. It does work for me, though, and I’ve been fairly successful with it. I’ve also found if I follow two of the rules above, I sometimes have room to ignore one. For example, if I start near the end, and I have only two characters, then I can probably fit in a couple of locations. Or, if I keep my character count low and I limit my locations, then I might be able to start a little further from the end and get in a bit more backstory and setup.
To further illustrate my little formula, here are some flash fiction pieces I’ve recently published where you can see those three guidelines in effect (more or less).
- “Do Me a Favor” published by The Arcanist
This one is pretty much the poster child for my flash fiction formula. It ticks all the boxes. One small location (a bar), few characters (two), starts pretty much at the end.
- “When the Lights Go On” published by The Arcanist
So, this is one my stories with more than two characters. I think I have three speaking parts in this one, and a whole town full of people are present. That said, I do start near the end, and I restrict my location to one spot (a church). This is an example of where I follow two guidelines so I have more room to mess around with the third.
- “Bear Necessity” published by The Molotov Cocktail
Another three for three here. Just two characters? Check. One location? Check. Start near the end? Check(ish). This one has a tad bit more setup than usual for my flash, but following my other two rules allowed me a little more space for it.
- “Simulacra” published by EllipsisZine
This is an example of flash stripped right down to the frame. It definitely follows my three guidelines in that it has one character, one location, and it’s, uh, the end of pretty much everything. Of course, you don’t have to go to this extreme to write good flash, but sometimes a story only needs a bare-bones treatment to work.
So that’s how I write flash fiction. How do you do it? Tell me about it in the comments.