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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Flash Fiction Writing

Publication Date: Nov 1, 2021

Why not try writing a flash fiction story?

Image of the words Flash Fiction
Image from Nothing in the Rulebook, a blog by ProfessorWU

Short fiction originally stems from myths, parables, fables, and legends of old, but it has reached new heights in the publishing scene. Check out this wonderful explanation of the history of short fiction, as written by William Boyd in Prospect Magazine, titled "A Short History of the Short Story."

The three most popular forms of short fiction are the short story, flash fiction, and microfiction. Each of these delivers a story fragment that packs a powerful and emotional punch. The short story is likely a type with which you're most familiar. Who hasn't read a short story at some point in their life, be it for a class or in a magazine? The same can't readily be said for flash fiction or microfiction, although that will likely change since their popularity is gaining speed. There are different terms for these two styles, such as sudden fiction or reflex fiction, but the two most popular names are flash fiction and microfiction.

Microfiction is under 300 words. Flash fiction is between 250-1500 words (although that's not an exact number range and is apt to change depending on the circumstances, contest, publication, etc.) The trick with short fiction is managing not only to pack that emotional punch but to craft an entire narrative arc within the brief fragment. These types of fiction are not an isolated and well-written scene showcasing a writer's style (don't be fooled for what some might try to pass off as flash fiction!), rather these types of fiction are entire stories, only briefly (and impactfully) told. Similarly, these types of fiction are not a narrative outline of Bob meets Sally, Bob likes Sally, Sally likes Bob, and they live happily ever after. There should be no difference in emotional impact between a flash fiction piece and a novel. When you complete your reading of a flash fiction story, be it a 1000 word story or otherwise, the piece should feel "finished." While you may want to know more about the characters and spend more time with them, the story itself should have a decisive ending, not leave you hanging.

Image of the Ernest Hemingway poem
Ernest Hemingway's short fiction

Check out this exploration of the history and nature of flash fiction, specifically. The article is written by Sandra Arnold, titled "Do it in a Flash: An Essay on the History and Definition of Flash Fiction." You'll find quite a number of additional links to flash fiction books, websites, etc. included in the article.

Since our focus is on flash fiction rather than microfiction, I'll leave this part brief. One of the most well-known pieces of microfiction comes to us from Ernest Hemingway: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." Here's a brief history of Hemingway's microfiction, if you're interested to read more about it, the article written by Nikola Budanovic for The Vintage News. Also, here are some supposed sequels to that piece, as compiled by Zack Wortman in The New Yorker.

Cover image of the book The 3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley
Cover of The 3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley

The concept of short fiction, be it flash or micro, has come a long way, and contemporary writers have given it flare. Ready to read some prize-winning examples? This collection is brought to you by TSS Publishing and features the best British and Irish flash fiction. Explore their website for more! Reflex Fiction offers a quarterly contest and is open to international submissions. Read more about them and the contest here. For the archive of Reflex Fiction's flash fiction contest winners, click here. Tell me the "Art Project: Woman Freed" flash doesn't give you chills. Emotional punch? Oh yeah. It was the 1st place winner of Summer 2021, by the way, found at the archive link just posted.

For some inspiration on what to write when facing that blank page, I heartily recommend grabbing a copy of Brian Kiteley's The 3 A.M. Epiphany. It is a must own by any writer, from novice to experienced. Once upon a time, that was the textbook I required for my creative writing class (although Stephen King's On Writing was another book I required at one point, but it's not necessarily for our purposes here, which are much better served by Kiteley's book).

Flash fiction isn't for everyone, as many readers (and writers) prefer the extended journey, the details, the full exposition and development along the story arc. For others, flash fiction can pack a far more emotional punch than a lengthy story can, making it a beloved favorite for some readers and writers. It's an especially powerful tool for writers to hone their craft since everything depends on precise and concise phrasing, framing, and organizing. Every word counts, so choosing what should be described and what shouldn't, how best to capture the scene and emotion, and how best to convey the inner conflict, is all part of the joy and the challenge. Symbolism, metaphors, figurative language, and the like are all tools to strengthen flash fiction pieces since they allow for double (or multiple) meanings to accomplish more with fewer words, while also crafting a more vivid story experience.

So, what's the secret to a powerful flash fiction? It's a combination of "economical" writing style meets truncated story arc. The story arc for a novel and the story arc for a flash fiction look similar, surprisingly, but for the flash fiction, you're zooming into only one part of the story arc--the climax and resolution. Rather than chapters of exposition and character development, you plop your readers in the key moments before the climax (called in media res), just far enough to build the drama, and then the remainder of the flash is at that climactic moment of the conflict, followed by a swift resolution or implied resolution. Ending with a twist or something to ponder will enhance the flash, ideally something unexpected that still brings the work to a satisfying close but leaves your reader with that emotional punch to the gut--laughter, shock, horror, dismay, pleasure, whatever. Let's look more closely at the traditional story arc then zoom in for the flash arc.

Image of the traditional story arc
Traditional Story Arc

A traditional story arc looks like this (but click this for the article with details on each part of the arc, as written by Susan Leigh Noble). The arc begins with the exposition, which introduces the characters, their inner conflicts, their personalities, their normal routines, etc. We establish the story and the world so we know what is "normal." Then comes the inciting incident at about the 25% mark of the story. This can be positive or negative, but whatever the incident is, it jolts the MC to take action, thus beginning the middle stretch of the book (which is the longest of the story). For the long middle, we have "the quest" or rising action, wherein the MC is adjusting to life after that inciting incident. This middle could be filled with obstacles, minor conflicts, light decisions, a sense of a new norm, etc. Towards the 70% mark, give or take, we have the crisis. This moment is what will lead us to the climax, and it's when the MC makes a choice that will alter or decide the path that leads us to the climax. This could be another inciting incident outside of the MC's control, something that spurs them to make a choice or take an action, or it could be their own internal machinations that motivate them to take action. Whatever they do, it leads us to the 75% mark which is the climax. This is the moment of no return, the "all hope is lost" moment. We think in this moment that nothing will work out and all is lost. The MC faces the greatest challenge yet. From there, for the remainder of the story, we have the falling action which leads us to the resolution wherein the MC recovers from the climax and finds a way to resolve the issues. Within romance stories, the crisis usually involves a rising of doubts, and it's these doubts that lead to drastic actions or decisions. Also within romance stories, the falling action typically involves a "dark" phase after the climax where the MCs each feel there's no coming back after the climax.

Here's the typical structure of a romance story:

  • First 25%: Intro to MCs, MCs meet, MCs resist their attraction, MCs are forced together anyway.

  • 25%-50%: Inciting incident, MCs think things could work out, they desire each other, a "love turn" occurs to bring them truly together.

  • 50-70%: Doubts to this working out, mounting doubts, a retreat in feeling.

  • 70%: Crisis. MCs are defensive, doubtful, and susceptible to the inciting incident that splits them.

  • 75%: Climax splits them apart or makes them feel all hope is lost.

  • 80%-100%: MCs justify the split, enter a "dark reflection" period of depression or sadness or self-loathing, followed then by a "grand gesture" on the part of one of the MCs that brings them together and/or a "revelation" about themselves or their relationship, which brings them together for the HEA ending.

Cover of Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes
Cover of Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes

The best book I've found on the arc and structure of the romance is Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes. If you write romance, you must own this.

What does this mean for the flash fiction arc? With a flash, we're aiming for the moment that makes us gasp, sit on the edge of our seat, and then feel the conflict has been resolved. While the exposition and long middle all help build reader investment in the characters, especially as the MC quests and journeys through the trials and tribulations of life, that's not when we gasp, sit on the edge of our seat, or feel "resolved." The best place to start a flash is either a few moments before the crisis or just after the crisis as we barrel headlong into the climax. Those moments before are all we have to drive character investment, so use them well. It's possible you even start at the moment of crisis for more impact, but while doing so, dig into the character's motivations and fears and goals so we still feel invested even when in the middle of things. If we think about it this way, imagine The Lord of the Rings series' Two Towers as a flash: Frodo is trudging/climbing to the tower (we have only this moment to build the character). Frodo enters the tower. Frodo struggles with a decision then makes the wrong choice. Moment of conflict followed immediately by resolution. Yeah, I know that's LOTR heresy to try to arc a flash out of it, but hopefully it'll give you the basic idea (and of course, that assumes this moment is the climax, which may or may not be the case). For more impact, you could start the story with Frodo already in the tower, struggling to make a decision. We have no investment yet and are thrust into the action, but with the right wording, you can build that investment during the crisis.

While there's no "right" way to write a flash fiction story, and you'll find plenty of examples that break the "rules," I recommend the following process:

  • Craft a full story arc, just as though you were going to write this as a full-length novel (whatever that means to you, be it 40,000 words or 150,000 words... or 439,344 words as is the case of LOTR).

  • Iron out the Main Character's personality, goals, fears, backstory, etc., just as you would a novel. Plan it all out.

  • Then zoom into that final peak of the story arc.

    • Trim around the edges.

    • Brainstorm how to include those goals/fears/backstory within that final peak.

  • Write the flash.

  • Trim, trim, trim.

  • Adjust phrasing to include metaphors, symbols, and the like to help strengthen the meaning in this shortened form.

  • Eye the final line, as the final sentence of the flash fiction (arguably) offers the most powerful punch of the whole piece.

As you look at different examples of flash fiction, you might find some that are written almost completely as metaphor, almost like a poem. There is a definite poetic nature to well-written flash fiction. A few articles that offer tips, some overlapping with mine presented in this post and some not: How to Write Flash Fiction by Dan Hughes. How to Write Flash Fiction Stories by Sean Glatch (this one is fantastic!). The Ultimate guide to Flash Fiction (And How to Write Your Own) from Writer's Edit. How to Write Flash Fiction from Reflex Fiction.

If you're interested in reading my flash fiction, consider subscribing to the newsletter, as I include a new flash every month. My Romantic Encounters series also includes a year's worth of flash fiction in every edition (complete with illustrations). The first two books in this series are A Dash of Romance and A Touch of Romance.


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