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A Primer for Writing Flash Fiction
Writing Flash Fiction Stories
It may seem presumptuous for me to write an instructional article on how to write flash fiction stories, and I must admit, I feel a little presumptuous doing it. On one hand, I probably haven't quite written even a hundred flash fiction stories. It's hard to count them because I keep finding old ones, dust covered and forgotten, in the corners of my hard drive. On the other hand, I can identify several tools I utilize when I am working on a new story.
I want to share these skills or tools with you, hoping that they may help as you write in this exciting, unique format called flash fiction.
Get a Firm Grasp of Genre versus Form: Tip One
Flash Fiction is NOT a genre, it is a template, form or structure utilized in the writing process.
Genre is the content of your writing, such as a story about relationships (Romance/Romantic Comedy), future space colonies (Science Fiction) people taking extreme risks (suspense/thriller).
Ghost Story Genre in Literature
Genre and Format Contrasted
Genre (content of story)
Format (structure/template of story)
Genre Writing Versus Organic Writing: Tip Two
Genre writing entails choosing a genre first, then writing a story with those characteristics.
Organic writing begins with the writer taking the seed of a story and developing it without the constraints of a particular genre.
Most of my stories so far have been written organically. I simply look at the stories when they are finished and decide what genre they fit. I may then go back and strengthen the characteristics of that genre in the story.
Organic writing can be wordy and full of unnecessary side stories. Often, the first draft is virtually unusable as a flash fiction story. The first draft should be used to identify the story you want to tell, then pull it out and rewrite.
Show, Don't Tell: Tip Three
Telling a story is dominated by narration.
Showing a story is dominated by description
Writing Complete Stories (Link)
The Difference Between Showing and Telling
Here is an example of telling a story as opposed to showing the story.
The airplane landed and Steve picked up his carry-on bag and exited the plane. Steve saw Cindy, and they hugged and kissed for a few minutes. After that they picked up Steve’s checked luggage and walked to the parking lot.
If you weren’t ready to scream after that, then you soon would be if it went on much longer. But the fact is, many writers find it difficult to communicate a story any other way, including me. Here’s a sentence from a recent suspense/horror story I wrote:
I circle the chair repeatedly like Moses walking around Jericho, and the paper thin walls of your pseudo manhood begin to crumple.
Do you see the difference between the two sentences? One narrates factual information. The other paints a mental picture in the minds of readers.
Tell, Don't Show: Tip Four
Sometimes it is preferable to tell rather than to paint elaborate mental pictures. When moving between two, prominent points in a story, the transition can afford to be narrated rather than intricately described.
When to Show and When to Tell
I recognize that tip five, Tell, Don't Show, contradicts tip four, Show, Don't Tell. I believe that there are times when telling is simply more appropriate. It is easy to spout the old adage of Show, Don't Tell, without giving it much thought.
Imagine a story that has no ebb and flow, that is highly descriptive from beginning to end with all parts of the story treated equally. You may want your character to simply check the time by looking at his watch. Why should a writer feel constrained to intricately describe the character's arm, his watch and the act of raising his arm? All he may need to say is, "Joe glanced at his watch."
Get the First Paragraph Right: Tip Five
The first paragraph is where you will hook your readers or lose them. This is where the genre of your story is introduced.
The first paragraph is a key place where flash fiction differs from all other forms of fiction. Word count rules. There simply aren't enough words to allow a lengthy first paragraph that doesn't get right into the genre of your story.
Getting the First Paragraph Right: Tip Five
In a flash fiction story, with one thousand or fewer words, the first paragraph can’t be used simply to get warmed up. Jump into the deep end, don’t ease your way in slowly by starting in the wading pool. If your genre is suspense, show the suspense in the first paragraph. If it’s comedy, get some comedic content in right away. If you are writing for a competition, the judges will be looking for this.
The first paragraph is where you will hook your readers or lose them. This is where the genre of your story is introduced. If it is a suspense story, introduce suspense in the first paragraph.
If your story is romance and you begin with someone frying eggs, but with no reference to anything related to romance, or the lack thereof, you may lose your reader who was expecting a romance story.
Edit Mercilessly: Tip Six
One goal of a well written flash fiction story is for it to move, in as few words as possible, from the introduction of plot and characters, through the conflict and on to the resolution without side stories, distractions and repetition. Edit mercilessly to achieve this goal.
It is a unique characteristic of flash fiction, that each and every story use the fewest number of words possible.
Editing Your Flash Fiction Story
Editing flash fiction isn’t only about finding misspelled words and incorrect punctuation. A primary goal of editing flash fiction is to reduce word count to the smallest possible number. The use of adverbs should be kept to a minimum. Contractions are a great way to reduce word count.
My first drafts are often rife with repetition. Eliminating these unnecessary redundancies can drop word count dramatically. Anything that isn’t relevant to the plot should be cut from the story. If you read and edit repeatedly, the result will be a shorter, much tighter story.
Editing Your Story
Backstory and Side Stories: Tip Seven
A side story may be related to your main story, but adds nothing significant to the plot. Leave it out.
A backstory is the source, or roots of your main story. Insert the necessary backstory information into the main story where it is relevant.
How to Kill Your Story
If you want to kill your flash fiction story, begin it with a lengthy backstory
What to do With the Backstory and Side Stories
Side stories are usually separate, related stories that don’t add anything substantial to the main story being told. These should be edited out. If they are interesting, a whole flash fiction story can be developed out of them later.
A backstory is different than a side story. Backstory is the context out of which a story grows. But if you want to kill your flash fiction story, begin it with this backstory. A better option is to identify the important elements of the backstory and sprinkle them in as the story unfolds.
How to Write Flash Fiction
Summary of the Seven Tips for Writing Flash Fiction
- Get a firm grasp of genre versus format
- Genre writing versus Organic writing
- Show, don't tell
- Tell, don't show
- Get the First Paragraph Right
- Mercilessly Edit
- Backstory and Side Stories