People have been enjoying stories for as long as humanity has been around. The love of stories never changes, but the mediums through which people enjoy stories often do change. Often by necessity. Some people love to read 400-page novels, while others struggle to read the first 4 paragraphs. Many people love to watch 2-hour movies, while others would rather read a novelization of the same story. Some people couldn’t sit through a full-length movie, but could spend hours watching short videos on the Internet. More and more, as technology has unfortunately resulted in many people having shorter attention spans, writers are having to find new ways to communicate stories in a way that appeals to people who are used to reading short snippets of information on the small screen of their smart phones. Flash fiction is a medium that works perfectly in a low-attention span world.
What is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is a category of short story that limits the author to a word count of 1,000 words or less. If you’re submitting flash fiction stories to be published, some magazines limit flash fiction stories to as little as 300 words.
Why Write Flash Fiction?
Because of a flash fiction story’s brevity, it works perfectly for a short read on a mobile device. Many people read blogs on their smartphones, and probably even more read social media status updates on their smartphones that read as long as blog posts. While it might seem that people have low attention spans, people actually read much more than we often realize because of mobile devices. People may take their information in small chunks, but they do take information in. If you’re a fiction writer, flash fiction is a great way to get your stories in front of people who love to read short snippets of information over longer forms of writing. Of course, flash fiction isn’t just for reading on a mobile device. Many people still read on their computers at home. Flash fiction can be published as ebook singles. There are also many magazines that publish flash fiction. Flash fiction presents fiction writers with a lot of opportunity for getting their stories read by a wide audience.
The Satisfaction of Finishing
Many fiction writers come up with great story ideas and love the feeling of starting a story, but they often struggle with finishing. It makes sense. A novel can often be 80,000 words and take months to write. They usually have a plot and several subplots that have to all tie together in the end. Some fiction writers go with the medium of screenwriting, and a screenplay can be 100 pages and, again, take months to write. Even short stories, ranging from 2,000 to 30,000 words, can take weeks to write. Writers love to finish their stories, but when the end seems so far away, interest can fade all too quickly. Sure, a writer can force himself to slog through to the end, and definitely should if there’s any hope that it will be a really good story, but many writers will give up on their story midway through and never get to enjoy the exhilarating feeling of finishing a story they’ve started.
Flash fiction stories can take as little as a day or a few hours to write. With flash fiction, you get to experience what it’s like to start and finish a story. It’s a great feeling. Not only do you get to experience the feeling of finishing, but the moment you finish one story, you can start your next flash fiction story and finish it in just a short time as well. In the time that it would take you to write a novel, you could write several flash fiction stories. Of course, flash fiction is one medium, and if you’re a fiction writer, being able to write a full-length novel or screenplay, as you can learn in these courses, is a valuable skill to have.
How to Write Flash Fiction
Following the tips below will guide you in writing a solid flash fiction story. You’ll find an example of a flash fiction story that uses these tips at the end.
- Focus on One Character
With a limit of 1,000 words, there isn’t a lot of room for character development and definitely not a lot of room for several characters. There needs to be some character development, but it’s development that you need to be able to communicate in a short time. Longer forms of fiction have character arcs. Essentially, with character arcs, we follow a character from their beginning of their journey of development all the way to the end. With flash fiction, we only see the end, and the beginning and middle can only be hinted at. You want to pick one character to focus on. There will likely be at least two characters in the story because you’ll often use a human antagonist as opposition to your protagonist. You might be able to use three characters, but any more than that will probably be overkill in the realm of flash fiction.
- Focus on One Scene
Longer story forms have a beginning, middle, and end, but with flash fiction, you’re really telling only the end of a story. Of course, you want the story to be its own self-contained story, but you won’t be able to flesh out a complex story world, a cast of characters, and a significant backstory in 1,000 words. Instead, your flash fiction story should focus on one scene, one moment in the life of your character. It needs to be a significant, life-altering moment for your character. Focusing on one scene also means focusing on one location. Just as you won’t be able to map out a significant internal journey for your character, significant physical journeys won’t work either. That doesn’t mean your location can’t change; it just means that you don’t want to change locations unless it’s vital to the story you’re trying to tell. In the example you’ll read below, the main character goes from running in a forest to being inside a church. The location change is quick and adds, rather than distracts, from the story. Many writers will suggest entering a scene as late as possible, which means starting a scene at the further point where no vital information will be left out. That’s especially true for flash fiction so that your limited word count focuses on the essentials to the story.
- Focus on One Conflict
All stories are about conflict. A story can be easily defined as a character who wants or needs something and has to overcome some obstacle in order to attain it. The obstacle is the conflict. You have to answer two very important questions to write a really good flash fiction story.
1. What does your character want? What’s the one thing that they feel they have to have? The one thing they’ll find anything and anyone for? It could be something physical, an idea, or a status. Whatever it is, it needs to be something that your character feels will make his or her life better if only they had it. Whether or not their feeling is true will be determined by how you end the story. For example, your character may believe that having millions of dollars is the one thing that will make them truly happy, but your character may discover in the end that he’d rather have his family, whom he abandoned for riches, than all the wealth in the world The character’s goal is what drives your story forward.
2. Who or what is trying to stop your character from getting it? A story is incomplete if the main character wants something and automatically gets it. That’s not interesting. There’s something inherently interesting to people about having to fight for something you want. An obstacle to the goal provides conflict and additional drive to a story. The obstacle can be in the form of an internal flaw inside of your character, an external human antagonist, or some general law or principle that goes against what your character wants. Determine what your character wants, then create an obstacle that is in the way of what your character wants.
- Focus on One Theme
Your theme is the moral argument of your story. It’s about how you want your readers to be impacted by the story. What do you want them to be encouraged to do, be, or believe as a result of reading your story? If you write a story about a person who sacrifices their life at the end so that someone else can live, you’re making a moral argument that sacrifice is the ultimate display of love. You want people to believe that loving someone means being willing to give your life for that person. Theme isn’t about being preachy. It’s simply about grounding your characters in such a way that their decisions help others to make wise decisions about how they live their lives. The moral argument is displayed by how the protagonist of your story overcomes the antagonist. With a solid moral argument, you’re doing more than just communicating a narrative; you’re impacting a reader in a positive way.
- Focus on Word Choice
You only have 1 to 1,000 words to tell your story, so you have to choose those words wisely. When you know what actions and ideas you want to communicate, choose the least amount of words to communicate them.
How Flash Fiction Makes You a Better Writer
Flash fiction forces you to be economical with your words. It helps you to focus your ideas and strip away anything that isn’t essential to your story. Often, when you’re writing flash fiction, you’ll write more than you need. When you go back through, you’ll see what needs to be there, what can be taken out, and what needs to be reworked, which helps you to develop your editing and revising skills (learn more with this course).
Flash Fiction Example
Below is an original example of a flash fiction story that comes in at just under 500 words.
Unblinded: An Original Flash Fiction Story
A man named Fletcher raced through the moonlit forest, feeling his heart pounding in his ears and hearing leaves crunch beneath his footfalls. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his pursuer, a woman with tears streaming down her face.
He knew her, he was sure. But how? The look in her eyes was a mixture of desperation and a vague feeling he once knew as love.
Another voice: Not love. Thirst…for blood.
He pushed himself harder. Suddenly the ground disappeared beneath him.
Fletcher awakened and adjusted his eyes to the darkness. He found himself in an old church.
Why underground? he thought.
A cross hung on the wall to his right.
I hate crosses, he thought.
“Fletcher! Are you okay?”
He saw her outline in the hole twenty feet above him. How had he survived the fall? Nevermind. He had to get away from her.
He jumped to his feet. A sharp pain shot through his leg, but he had to push through it.
“Don’t listen to it!”
Listen to what?
He raced deeper into the darkness. His lungs burned. She would be the violent death of him.
“I love you!”
He froze. A soft hand was on his shoulder, and his skin burned beneath it.
He turned. A smile crossed her face. She was beautiful and terrifying.
How did she…
Her hand gently held his. A mixture of anger and confusion coarsed through him. He knew he should be running, but he couldn’t. He both wanted her and wanted away from her. How long before she drained him of life?
Though his skinned burned at her touch, he felt trapped by her voice. Soft…soothing.
“You know me. I’m not the one to run from. I’m here to rescue you.”
Feeling a renewed sense of strength, he pushed her away from him. Her head slammed into the wall, and she crumpled to the ground. A pool of liquid surrounded her head.
She was dead?
Relief washed over him. He walked away from her.
He was free.
“I know you’re in there, Fletcher. I’m here to bring you out.”
His heart was pounding, his head blazing. He felt like he was dying.
How? She was dead, I’m sure of it.
He turned. There she stood, unharmed. She held out her hand.
Run. I should run.
She’s beautiful and she’s alive.
She’s hideous and wants me dead.
“I need you,” he heard himself say. “I’m so sorry.”
Why did he just say that?
He reached out for her hand. With one touch it felt like something that had been blinding him fell from his eyes.
She was beautiful. Of course. How could he forget? She had married him and given her life to him and for him.
He threw his arms around her and held her tight.
He was free.