So you’ve been thinking about writing flash fiction, but you’re not sure what to write…or, more importantly, what not to write! When you’re used to writing other lengths of fiction, taking on a flash fiction project can seem intimidating.
What is Flash Fiction
Duotrope (an online database of writers’ markets) gives the upper limit as a thousand words, but individual markets vary widely on what they want for lengths.
So instead of dwelling on word counts, let’s go with the following to explain flash fiction:
- A very short story, intended to be read in a few minutes (while standing in line, for example),
- Which has a character, setting, and problem (a setup) that is resolved in some way at the end,
- And which has as little else as possible.
Where flash fiction differs from a “prose poem” is that a prose poem can completely disregard character, setting, problem, or resolution and still be effective. Many prose poems are simply images, moments, or character sketches. (Any other differences between poetry and fiction are beyond the scope of this article!)
How to Structure Flash Fiction
When it comes to structuring flash fiction, there are no rules!
One of the most interesting parts about flash fiction is that it can have wildly different structures. Flash fiction can be six words long; flash fiction can be a grocery list; flash fiction can be a list of instructions; flash fiction can be nothing but dialog.
As long as you state or imply a character, setting, problem, and resolution, then your flash fiction piece will probably work.
How to Set Up Flash Fiction
Let’s look at the famous six-word story, usually attributed to Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
In a flash fiction story, you can either state or imply your setup, but you have to have one. Here’s the setup for this story:
- Character: at least one parent.
- Setting: here and now in a Western culture.
- Problem: the death of a child.
None of these things are stated outright, only implied.
In a slightly longer story, W. Somerset Maugham’s “Appointment in Samarra,” the elements are stated fairly clearly:
“There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”
- Character: a merchant’s servant.
- Setting: Bagdad (then Samarra).
- Problem: fear of Death.
Some stories will state parts of their setup and imply others. Often, when I’m writing a piece of flash fiction, I’ll discover that I can cut a lot of words that are implied by some other element of the story.
How to Resolve Flash Fiction
A flash fiction piece also has to have a resolution. But that begs the question, “Exactly what is a resolution?” A resolution has two parts: it establishes how the problem in the setup is handled by the character, and it tells the reader how to feel about that. The reader can be made to feel happy, sad, conflicted, ironic, or even frustrated that the whole situation is sure to happen again.
Here are the resolutions in the examples above:
In “Baby Shoes…”:
- The resolution is implied at the beginning of the story, in the words, “For sale:”
- The problem of the death of the baby is handled practically and cynically.
- The reader is supposed to feel sad for the baby, but sadder still for the parent, who can’t afford (whether emotionally or financially is not clear) to keep the shoes.
In “Appointment in Samarra”:
- The resolution is at the end of the story, when Death explains that she was surprised to see the merchant’s servant in Bagdad, when she had an appointment with him in Samarra.
- The problem of the servant’s fear of Death is resolved by the implication of Death finding him regardless.
- The reader is supposed to feel a sense of irony, in that the servant’s attempt to flee Bagdad succeeded but his attempt to flee Death did not.
Note how the normal “rules” of fiction are overturned in both stories. In the “Baby Shoes…” story, the resolution is at the beginning; in “Appointment in Samarra,” there isn’t any character development. Writing flash fiction can be an excellent exercise in learning how to break rules.
Darkness in Flash Fiction
One caveat about flash fiction: it is almost always easier to write a dark or cynical flash fiction piece than a lighthearted one. This has more to do with psychology than anything else. Human brains are primed for bad news! It takes fewer words for most people to pick up on an implication of something going wrong than something going right.
One Important Tip
You can almost always improve a flash fiction story by trimming off the ending lines! Something I’ve often noticed and discussed with other writers of flash fiction is the need to cut just one more line—usually from the end—to make the story more powerful.
Recommendations for Study
As always, my recommendation for learning how to study a writing technique is to get out and read something that uses it—and then typing it in. Then with every piece I would ask myself, “What are the character, setting, problem, and resolution?” and “What is the structure and why?” It won’t be easy to answer those questions at first!
Here are some excellent flash fiction resources:
- 11 Very Short Stories You Must Read Immediately (Literary Hub).
- 21 Flash Fiction Stories to Read While You Wait Anywhere (BookRiot; provides word counts).
- Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World (W.W. Norton).
As a reader, what I love about flash fiction is that good flash fiction is very intense and takes risks that other stories cannot. As a writer, what I love is taking those risks. I invite you to thumb your nose at any sense of intimidation and try a few!
DeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com.