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Flash fiction is any work of fiction that is typically 500 words or less. It is written in such a way that you get the maximum amount of impact in as few words as possible.

The "First they came for the Jews..." thing about the Nazis is a good example of flash fiction. It is under 100 words and it has a plot. The fewer words, the more concise, the better.

It may seem simple, but it's quite challenging. A few online zines publish flash fiction, such as Ideomancer (speculative), and Vestal Review (all genres). Typically paying .03 per word for 500 words or less and raising in respective categories until you get to 100 words or less, which typically pays .10 per word.

It's good when you're just looking for bite-size fiction tidbits. However, the really well-written ones are worth taking more time to examine, because a very skilled writer can conceal much more meaning in a few sentences than one might notice at first, or even second glance. That's what flash fiction is all about.

Introduction: This was co-written by myself and Tim Waggoner; it's my expansion of an outline written by him and is used with permission from him.


Sometimes shorter is better when it comes to fiction, particularly fiction that appears on the Web. That's where "flash fiction" comes in.

What it is ...

In a nutshell, flash fiction stories are very, very short stories that contain all the elements you'd find in a "normal" short story: characterization, conflict and resolution.

Writer S. Joan Popek defines flash fiction as "a literary punch to the gut. This shortest of the short forms is a flash of a story that, like a flash bulb, vividly illuminates one moment in time. It's generally defined as a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end that uses the elements of traditional short stories, often with a twist ending -- in 100 words or less."

Author William Peden calls a story in this style "a moment rendered in its immediacy" and Russell Banks calls flash fiction little stories that "leave the reader anxious in a particularly satisfying way."

The precise word count required for a story to be considered a piece of flash fiction is often in the eye of the beholding editor. Some editors consider anything under 1000 words to be flashfic, others seek works under 500 words or 300 words. And some, like Ms. Popek, don't think it's the real thing unless it clocks in at 100 words, which is less than half a typed, double-spaced manuscript page.

What it isn't ...

Flash fiction is not merely an idea for a story; ideas are the bricks you build a story with. Flash Fiction is not a slice-of-life vignette. Flash Fiction is a complete story, not a sketch. Change must occur in either the protagonist, the antagonist or the reader's mind for a story to qualify as flash fiction.

Flash fiction elements

The setting of a flash fiction story is often established in the title and the first sentence, and it is rendered in just a few, vivid words.

Flash fiction stories have only a few characters, usually just two but sometimes three. The characters don't have to be people; they can be animals or even inanimate objects.

The story's plot will unfold in a momentary flash, key episode, or climactic event. The story typically starts in medias res, and sometimes the traditional beginning, middle, and end you find in a longer short story can be skillfully replaced by an insightful surprise.

If you want to write a flash fiction story ....

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Sound doable? This is a very tricky, demanding form to pull off well. If you want to try this genre on for size but don't know where to begin, try writing a short, all-dialog story about things such as:

Try to think of a twist you can put on the ideas. Readers will make certain assumptions about a familiar setting and the way characters speak. Try to turn those assumptions upside down to surprise the reader.


m_turner suggests that people who enjoy speculative fiction should seek out All the Myriad Ways, a short story collection by Larry Niven. It contains a couple of short-shorts that he thinks are good examples of what to strive for in flash fiction.


References

"Flashes of Brilliance" by S. Joan Popek
Tim Waggoner's lecture on Flash Fiction
Allen, Roberta. Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes. Story Press, 1997.
Moss, Steve, ed. The World's Shortest Stories. Running Press, 1998.
Stern, Jerome, ed. Microfiction. Norton, 1996.
Thomas, James, et al., eds. Flash Fiction. Norton, 1992.

Milk
      They finally cornered him, his creamy mustache still visible. “You owe us for twelve bottles!”
      The thief’s eyes surveyed the dank alleyway looking for an escape route. “I didn't take them, I'm lactose intolerant!”
      The oldest sister, breathless from running while carrying a lead pipe, said, “We know. We tracked your gaseous trail since dawn.”

 


 

Writing flash fiction is a lot like writing poetry. Because of the word limitations, one must take their time discovering concepts and language that speaks beyond the text on the page. Sometimes the selected words must pull double- or triple-duty to get as much information across to the reader.

Here are some tips for writing effective flash fiction.

Consider writing poetry.

Poetry focuses on the same concepts and construction of flash fiction. In particular, learning how to write using recognized poetic forms like sonnets, pantoums, and sestinas can help train you to write conservatively and with precision. Even something as simple as a limerick or a haiku can be surprisingly difficult for a writer to construct effectively.

As one writes poetry, they expand their language skills and vocabulary. Understanding the different subtle definitions of a word can help one write with an overt initial reading with rippling undertones. This skill can help an author to evolve beyond writing a story that happens to be really short.

Find writing challenges.

There are several writing prompt websites such as Fish of Gold and Writing.com’s Daily Flash Fiction Challenge. Google can help to connect you to more. Forcing your brain to write with a specific concept or object in mind can both help you to focus and to open your mind to non-typical stories. These will also help to expand your skills and, at times, can even get you a publication credit.

Educate yourself with story construction lessons.

There are plenty of story construction articles and books to assist you with truly understanding how a story is built. Understanding the high-level concepts of story building can help you to write flash fiction (and longer projects.) Take the time to learn the tropes of the different genres, including ones you do not necessarily read on a regular basis. Suggested books include Story Engineering by Larry Brooks or one of the Writer’s Digest series. If you have the time, try one of Open University’s free courses on writing.

Practice makes better.

Practice doesn’t make you perfect, but it certainly does help you to improve. The more you focus on writing, the better you will become as a writer. The work you produce should be edited and sent out like the rest of your writing. You won’t get rich writing flash fiction, but you can occasionally make a few bucks and progress in your professionalism skills.

By the way, what is flash fiction?

There are several definitions and variants of what is considered flash fiction. Some venues believe flash is 300 words or less, while most consider 1,000 or less to be flash. Here are some common variants:

  • 1,000 words or less: Flash Fiction
  • 750-500 words: Sudden or Immediate Fiction
  • 300 words or less: Micro Fiction
  • 100 words exactly: Drabble
  • 55 words exactly: Double-nickel Fiction
  • 50 words exactly: Dribble

While every word in a flash fiction piece is important, often pulling double or triple-duty, in most cases it is the last line that makes a flash piece effective and memorable. Personally, I find flash stories that completely change because of the last line to be the hardest to do and the most enjoyable type of fiction. It's akin to poetry in prose form.

Let me whip up another example 55-word flash piece for you:

 


 

The Final Bully
      Oh, how they loved me when I arrived. Two years later and I'm the pariah, all mistakes that were not my fault.
      I can't stand this hatred.
      Open the antique desk drawer, ignore the pistol.
      Press the red button next to it.
      It'll take ten minutes before the planet-busting bomb shockwave reaches the White House.

 


 

It took me eleven minutes to write that. Everything up to the last two lines are there to set up the story and to allow your brain to automatically fill in the empty spaces between the words. Even the title of the piece, not part of the story according to the rules but available to misdirect the reader, can be utilized to give the final line some additional impact. The concept works today because suicides are all over the news and the toxic political atmosphere during this election cycle. This story wouldn't be as effective if I wrote it back in 1977. It relies on the reader to bring along the news of the time into the reading experience.

The last line spins the story from where most readers expect the plot to go towards something completely different. It turns out that the final bully is an insane politician with science-fiction weaponry at their disposal. Note there is no actual clue if the president is male, female, non-binary, or even a lizard person. It is a far future event, unless we've invented planet-busting bombs and are hiding them in Montana. It brings along the rhetoric about presidential temperament from this year to add more background to the story without writing the words.

By making the reader think one thing and then adding a twist, the tale tends to go from a vignette towards a full story. Those last words gives a true ending. I personally find that the shorter the word count, the more important the twist is for my writing. It is also the thing that readers remember long after they've closed the book or surfed elsewhere on the Internet.

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