How to Write Successful Flash Fiction
Sat Jul 01 2017
For those not familiar, flash fiction is short fiction written in a hurry, often in a flash of inspiration. "Flashfics," as they're sometimes called, can be about anything. Typically they are 1000 words or less, though there are no hard-and-fast rules. You might think of them as short stories, and sometimes they are, but mostly they're more like vignettes.
Whether done for fun or for sport, writing flash fiction excellent writing practice. If you're interested, check out the /r/flashfiction subreddit where people post their works. I've been known to post a piece or two myself on occasion.
As you might expect from an open forum where anybody can post anything, quality is all over the spectrum. But after reading and contributing to this forum for a while, I've noticed some patterns in the pieces that work vs. those that don't.
Show, don't tell
First and foremost, the flashfics that work are the ones by writers who know how to show, rather than just tell.
In a nutshell, "showing" means describing anything visible within the scene. Anything the viewpoint character can perceive directly, on their own, is fair game. Depending on your viewpoint choice, the character's thoughts may also be included.
"Telling" means explicitly writing down all the implications of the visible stuff, because god forbid the reader should ever, you know, have to think about what anything means. Tell-based writing often goes so far as to leave out the visible evidence entirely, so it can go straight for the conclusions.
It is also boring as sand in the desert. Tell-based writing never manages to draw me in or encourage me to engage with the story. How can I engage when the writing is crafted to prevent me from thinking about anything? Telling is great for non-fiction, but it sucks for writing that aspires to engage readers on an emotional level.
[Edit: I have since written a "show, don't tell" series, starting here]
Second, don't bite off more than you can chew. The whole point of flash fiction is that it's short. Don't try to cram a Game-of-Thrones-sized epic into 1000 words and expect it to have any impact. A lot of the flashfics that don't work have tried to do just this.
Putting too much stuff into a too-little container forces you to write several brief summaries rather than one robust scene. It won't all fit otherwise.
But summaries are just the condensed, "tell" versions of hypothetical "show"-based scenes. Thus, picking too big of a scope for your flashfic forces you out of showing and into telling. It forces you boil away all the emotion from your piece, leaving behind a lifeless, dehydrated husk.
The best flashfics tend to focus on one scene. One short period of time, which they render in lovingly-crafted, vivid detail. If you only have to cover a little bit of time, 1000 words is ample space for showing the visible elements within the viewpoint character's awareness.
And when I say the viewpoint character, I mean it. You can try to create multiple viewpoints, but you'll find flashfics are too short to do them justice.
Yes, flash fiction can be about anything, but its extreme brevity means that some subjects work better than others.
Every writer, in any kind of fiction, leverages an astonishing amount of real-world knowledge they just assume readers have. This is a huge asset, but it does mean that writers are on the hook for explaining anything in the story's world that doesn't fit the knowledge readers bring to the table.
Flashfics that work best involve scenes that are immediately relatable to ordinary readers in their ordinary lives. A piece about two people deciding to break up is easy for basically everybody to relate to. We understand the emotions involved. We understand how people get into that kind of situation.
If your flashfic's premise is normal, you can take maximum advantage of readers' real-world knowledge. The premise doesn't demand any setup, leaving the writer with more space to concentrate on the particulars of their scene.
Flashfics that fall flat often involve weird, freaky, bizarre situations. They're the ones where the writer seems to be working particularly hard to surprise us with some kind of dun-dun-DUNNNN twist at the end.
But anything weird is inherently less relatable than something based in ordinary life. A bizarre premise means less of the reader's knowledge still applies, leaving the writer with a ton of setup just so readers can understand what we're reading about. This eats up space, and again forces the writer into a summary/telling mode of writing.
Yes, you can write flashfic about weird dystopias, paranormal powers, etc. But your "show" game had better be really good in order to convey that along with whatever's happening in your scene, all within the brevity of a flash.
Leverage the real world and skip the setup. Save your more speculative ideas for proper short-stories and novels.
I said at the beginning that flash fiction is excellent writing practice. The reason is that their extreme brevity forces you to leave out more than you leave in. This induces readers to imagine the missing bits on their own.
The trick is to be very strategic about what you put in, so as to reveal the negative space of everything you left out.
This is the essence of how "show, don't tell" writing works. You leave out everything you really want your readers to think and feel, but put it between the lines of your strategically-chosen visible elements. The net result is that readers get both, even in a very short piece of writing.
A good flash fiction is a vignette that hints at a whole novel, but leaves the reader to write that novel in their own imagination. If you find yourself doing more than hinting in your flashfics, you're probably doing too much.