I write a lot of flash fiction, and I’ve been lucky enough to publish a good amount of it. In fact, I recently published and entire anthology. The Molotov Cocktail collected 40 of my best flashes in a collection titled Night Walk & Other Dark Paths. But how do I write flash fiction? And more importantly, how do I write flash fiction that folks occasionally want to publish? Well, I have a formula, and it used to be three rules (which I covered a couple of years ago), but has now expanded to four. So let me tell you about my new and improved flash fiction formula.
What follows are four rules I (mostly) follow when 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. What the rules do is allow me to write very short stories with a recognizable plot, clear conflict, and a beginning, middle, and end. In my experience, that’s a successful formula for selling flash fiction. It should also be noted that I’m a genre fiction writer, and that literary fiction often operates under different rules. So, keep that in mind if you primarily write literary fiction.
Okay, let’s get to it. Here are my four flash fiction rules.
That’s my basic formula, and, again, it is not the end-all-be-all of writing flash fiction. It works for me, and I’ve been successful with it. I’ve also found if I follow two of the first three rules, I sometimes have room to ignore one. For example, if I start near the end, and I have only two characters, I can probably fit in a couple of locations. Or, if I keep my character count low and limit my locations, 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 formula, here are some flash fiction pieces I’ve published where you can see those guidelines in effect (more or less).
This one is a poster child for the first three rules. It features only two characters, in one location, and starts right at the inciting event. This is also one of the very few non-genre pieces I’ve written, so, you know, my formula doesn’t just work for vampires and aliens and stuff. 🙂
This a story where I break one of my rules, but I pull it off because I follow two others. The rule I broke is that the story features three characters, and all of them have dialogue. I made up for it by keeping to one location, starting the story right away, and letting the backstory unfold organically (and efficiently) as the story progressed.
This is an example of my new fourth rule. It’s a sci-fi story told from the POV of the leader of an off-world colony. He’s relating a series of events that take place over a decade, ending with a recent event. The story is punctuated with recorded messages from Earth, which have the feel of a news story. The piece mentions hundreds of colonists, and though it’s technically set in one location, it’s kind of a whole planet, so there’s a lot going on. If I’d tried to tell this story with a closer POV, it wouldn’t have worked as flash.
You might be wondering if I always follow my own rules. Nope. I don’t, and sometimes it even works. This story has four characters, all with dialogue, changes location, and has a fair bit of setup and backstory. Now, I like to think I was pretty efficient with how I related all that stuff, but, still, it breaks my rules. I don’t do this often because it’s tough to pull off, but, hey, when it works, it works.
So that’s my new and improved flash fiction formula. How do you do write flash? Tell me about it in the comments.
Rule number 4 definitely surprised me! But then, I love a close-as-possible 3rd-person narrator. Thanks for the new perspective!
Oh, I’m with you, and often as not, I find stories that follow rule four are tougher to pull off, at least for me. I’ve managed it a couple of times, but the difficulty factor is much higher.
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