My New & Improved Flash Fiction Formula

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 PathsBut 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.

  1. Start near the end. What I mean is begin your story as close to the inciting action or event as you can. This is pretty good advice for fiction of all lengths, but it’s crucial for flash. 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 generally happens in the first few paragraphs, leaving me a lot of space to resolve the conflict I’ve set up.
  2. Keep your character count low. I like a lot of dialogue 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 try not to feature more than two primary characters in my flash fiction (speaking characters, anyway). That way, they can have lots of dialogue, which is how I prefer to tell a story, and I don’t eat up too much space. Having only a few characters also lets me spend time developing them, again, usually through dialogue.
  3. 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 spot to another, and I don’t need to spend a lot of time describing places. 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.
  4. View from the Heavens. This is the newest addition to my formula, and in many ways it allows me to ignore the other three rules when I do it right. Basically, these stories take an omniscient POV or sometimes a limited one that relates a story like someone, well, telling a story. It’s a narrative device that allows you to pull back, jump around, and even cover many years of events in a small space. You can have a bunch of characters or a bunch of different locations because you’re not really spending much time with them. The drawback to this style is that the story can feel distant or that it lacks detail or action. It’s also a style some folks just don’t like, including editors.

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.

3 Comments on “My New & Improved Flash Fiction Formula

  1. 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.

  2. Pingback: On Writing: Short Fiction Writing, In Short – Of Metal and Magic Publishing

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