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A Primer for Writing Flash Fiction

Updated on February 27, 2016
cam8510 profile image

Chris has written more than 100 flash fiction/short stories.Working Vacation took 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.

Flash Fiction

Source

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

Source

Genre and Format Contrasted

Genre (content of story)
Format (structure/template of story)
Suspense
Flash Fiction
Romance
Short Story
Comedy
Novella
Drama
Novel
Horror
Essay
Thriller
Poetry
Any of the genres on the left (not an exhaustive list) can be written in any of the formats on the right (also not exhaustive).

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.

Organic Writing

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

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.

Brevity

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

Source

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.

Summary of the Seven Tips for Writing Flash Fiction

  1. Get a firm grasp of genre versus format
  2. Genre writing versus Organic writing
  3. Show, don't tell
  4. Tell, don't show
  5. Get the First Paragraph Right
  6. Mercilessly Edit
  7. Backstory and Side Stories

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    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 16 months ago

      I'm so glad I ran onto this because I needed a good definition and a lesson. I started a flash fiction recently that morphed into a 2300 word short story. I've been thinking about going back to see if I can take out the bones and put it into flash fiction and leave the short story for a publication I'm working on. I've noticed that short stories aren't worth the effort on HP, but flash fiction gets read.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Faith, glad to hear you are working on flash fiction. FF is typically considered to be 1,000 or fewer words. Edit out only the things that don't help the story in an important way. Adverbs and adjectives are easy targets. I hope you are going to publish it here so I can read it.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

      Hi Cam, I am glad I found this one this night for I am working on a flash fiction story. I have the basic story down but before I read your article, I knew I need to edit, edit, edit. Boy, I am finding it is not so easy as I feel all are such a part of the story. I am thinking on the telling and showing and your example here is an eye opener for sure. So how long can a flash fiction be? Up +++

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      lesliesinclair, I know exactly what you mean. I finally got the message on the backstory issue late last summer while writing for a multi-stage flash fiction competition. The backstory has needed information, but not all at once and not all at the beginning.

      Oral story telling sounds like a very interesting way to communicate fiction. I'm glad you found something helpful in this article.

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 2 years ago

      I get it; I think. These tips can help me even in the oral telling of stories. Where I often lose my listener is in the backstory that seems so critical to me.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Deb, Thanks for reading. I'm glad you liked the article. I hope it can be a help to someone who wants to write flash fiction.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Sounds like clear and concise tips to me. You certainly know how to do your work.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Frank, thanks for that. I've been taking part in some competitions outside of HP and have learned some things from other participants through their own writings and critiques of my stories. I thought it was worth passing on.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 2 years ago from Shelton

      Cam, this is useful and true to form.. yeah flash fiction 101 here keep up the great work

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Venkatachari M, Thanks for reading my hub. I'm glad you found some useful ideas. Learning to show the story makes all the difference in the world in our writing. Good luck with it.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting and useful hub. I am able to learn a lot from your tips. especially the styles of telling and showing stories. Thanks for sharing this valuable experience of yours. Voted up and sharing.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Ann, I'm glad you see some things here you can use. Short stories may not require the intense editing for the low word count, but it's always good to get the unnecessary verbiage out of the way. Thanks for sharing, Ann.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Bill, I hope you do get the bug, or at least give this flash fiction thing a try. I think people enjoy it so much because they can spend a fair amount of time crafting it, but not weeks and months like some other forms can take. Thanks for stopping in and for the comment.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Ruby, I'm glad you found some things here that will be useful. I look forward to reading some more of your stories very soon.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Thanks for sharing this useful and interesting tutorial. I'll stick with my own brand of family saga story-telling, I think. I enjoy it, and my readers do, as well. There just aren't many of them, but, that is fine, as well. Thank you for doing what you do! ;-)

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      Excellent tips for flash fiction. Useful for me as I become more at ease with the general short story thing! Much of what you say applies to them too, I think.

      Having got my competition story out of the way, I feel a little more confident to write more in that vein. I do start organically, then let it grow; it's happened with my response to Bill's challenge and I'm enjoying it immensely.

      Every writer should read this, which is why I'm sharing it along with the votes.

      Ann

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Excellent tips, Chris! I've never tried flash fiction, but if I ever get the bug, I'll refer back to this. Thanks, and have a great Saturday.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 2 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Your take on flash fiction is interesting and helpful. I especially liked the ' show and tell ' The contrast between telling and showing allowed me to see how boring telling is. I love to write flash fiction, due mostly to me getting bored with a story that's too long. Well done Cam..

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Thanks John. I'm hoping there are some things here that will help those who want to give flash fiction a try. At first I called it 7 Tips for writing a Flash Fiction Story, but someone had already used that title. Funny thing is, HP allowed me to go ahead and use that title again. I changed it to 7 suggestions for now.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This is a very helpful basic guide to writing flash fiction cam. It is a really specialised area of story writing and in a way takes much more effort than a normal short story because of the word constraints and having to keep the story tight. I can compare flash fiction to poetry in a way because you have to try to say as much as possible into very few words and encourage the reader to read between the lines. Thanks for sharing your knowedge. Voted up.

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