elements of story

by Julie Duffy


In this series, we’re taking a ‘back to basics’ look at Genre: what certain genres encompass, what readers look for in a particular genre, how to write well (and terribly) in that genre. We’re talking to writers, editors and publishers to bring you the tools you need to succeed in genre flash fiction.

Science Fiction

Science fiction is big. Really big. Both in terms of audience and the many ways you can write fiction and have it called ‘science fiction’. It is also a mature genre, having come of age in the first half of the 20th century. Since then, its vast audience has had time to form strong opinions about what is and is not science fiction.

“Friendships have been forged and broken over the question ‘what is science fiction,’” warns writer Linda Nagata, with her tongue only partly in her cheek.

The good news is that, with such a large and popular genre, there is room for all flavors of story: from Star Wars-style ‘space opera’, to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘hard’ science fiction, to ‘science fantasy’ time travel tales. Then there’s your post-apocalptic, near-future, military and sociological fiction, not to mention, cross-genre, bizarro and slipstream, all of which can end up under the ‘science fiction’ banner.

Is your head spinning yet?

What Are the Basic Requirements for Science Fiction?

Linda Nagata provided us with a good definition of science fiction,

“Loosely, science fiction is a story that involves some speculative or yet-to-be-invented technology.”

She goes on to qualify this: not every story involving gadgets counts as ‘hard’ science fiction.

“If magic or supernatural elements are present, I think of it as fantasy, even if technology is part of the story.”

The Twilight Zone is an example of this. Many stories revolved around technology, aliens or space travel, but there was never a technological ‘answer’ to the story’s puzzle. The mystery was supernatural, and so, while it appeals to the kind of audience that likes science fiction, The Twilight Zone is more properly called ‘fantasy.’

What Readers Want

Again, let’s remember that genre definitions have more to do with ‘helping the audience find stories they like’ than they do with ‘defining your work.’ With a focus on the reader, it’s easier to see how all these sub-genres fit under ‘Science Fiction.’

Science fiction readers tend to be looking for action (physical or mental), a story that challenges assumptions, and stunning, thought-provoking ‘what ifs.’ At the very minimum, says Nagata, readers will;

“…have a curious mind and be open to stories set in worlds that are not outside our front door.”

Most of all, however, readers want stories about interesting people who are facing up to new challenges (or perhaps old ones) in the face of the technology in the story.

How to Squeeze Science Fiction into Flash

In flash fiction, there is very little room to build a realistic world. Genres and sub-genres can help readers make mental shortcuts and understand what to expect.

“A reader has to have some common shared background with the writer in order to understand what he reads,” adds Mark Budman of Vestal Review. “This background comprises the language, the vocabulary, the experience, the culture, the history.”

Of course, relying too much on a genre’s tropes leads to clichés.

“If you’re seriously interested in writing science fiction,” says Linda Nagata, “you need to be aware of [the] diversity, at the least so you’ll know what the clichés are, and also so that you’ll understand the needs of different story markets. So read widely, and read a lot.”

She suggests that, because of the tightness of flash fiction, science fiction flash writers might rely on standard settings — “a present-day laboratory, a space capsule that has lost power, a post-nuclear-apocalypse wasteland—something the reader has seen before and can grasp without much explanation.”

Another way to make room for world-building is suggested by Michael Arnzen, flash fiction author and Professor of English at Seton Hall University.

“Start as close to the end as possible. Perhaps we are just one character decision away from an outcome, or one clue away from solving a mystery.”

Both approaches allow you to spend time following the characters through their emotional journeys.

And, to satisfy a science fiction reader, it’s not enough to throw in a bunch of gizmos and technobabble: the events in the story must make sense. Even in the champion-of-weird sub-genre of “slipstream,” the plot (and the technology) must follow the story’s own internal logic.

E.S. Wynn, chief editor of Smashed Cat Magazine, stresses that in slipstream stories;

The weird is important, but it must make sense. Stay with me—if a writer puts together a story that isn’t coherent, readers won’t be able to get into it. Plant dragons that breathe methane and fly through space? Cool, but make sure it serves the story. Telling us about your plant dragons and then writing a bit of grandma’s apple pie recipe into the story for “weirdness” isn’t going to fly, most of the time.

Just as in any science fiction story, one might say, ‘The science is important, but it must make sense.”

How to Write Science Fiction Badly

As with any genre, the worst crime a writer can commit is to be boring. It’s especially true in science fiction. As E. S. Wynn points out;

“Fans of the genre look for…newness, novelty, voices and perspectives they’ve never heard before.”

The second-worst crime is to unwittingly use clichés that make readers groan. Luckily, this second crime is easily avoided by, as Linda Nagata suggested, reading widely in the genre.

Reading voraciously in your genre also helps you develop a deeper understand of what it means to write in that genre.

“There’s a common misconception,” says Nagata, “that hard science fiction (my specialty) is all about the technology, with little good characterization. That simply isn’t true…the story needs to be about people living in those story worlds and the challenges they face because of the technology around them.”

Without interesting characters facing fascinating challenges, stories in any sub-genre of science fiction flash will fail.

As for the how to end a science fiction flash piece, Mark Budman cautions against “moralizing, clichés, puns for the sake of puns or poorly-executed jokes.”

And with that, I’ll resist the temptation to end this on a pun and simply invite you back next month for the next in our series on Genre.


Julie Duffy writes short fiction and is the host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay.org.


by Len Kuntz

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Even though a plethora of flash fiction exists today, I’ll admit to not having heard of the term until four years ago.

I was a little stunned by the discovery of this new-found form, the way you might be to all of a sudden learn that there’s an extra room in your house, a room filled with delicious treasures.

Browsing internet sites around 2010, I saw that talents such as Kim Chinquee, xTx, Kathy Fish and Meg Pokrass were turning out tight pieces of writing as short as 300 words—writing that was not poetry, though it often had a similar lyrical quality. Some of the pieces were even fully formed, containing a narrative arc and plot, while others sizzled instead, like Molotov cocktails left tossed in the air, leaving the reader to decipher whatever decimation might occur.

The sudden rise of flash fiction’s popularity is, in a way, akin to that of Twitter—both of them seemingly rising up out of the blue while quickly securing a place in our consciousness, should we choose to take an interest.

And much like Twitter—or Flash Chat for that matter—flash fiction is about brevity; about the ability to say something noteworthy or meaningful in a very confined space.

I don’t know if flash fiction’s appeal is, as many have said, a result of our shortening attention spans, but whatever the reasons, I’m happy to see how vital the form has become.

The allure of flash, for me, is that it mirrors many of the writing adages I’d been taught years ago:

  • start in the middle of the action;
  • make every word count;
  • hit the reader between the eyes;
  • murder your darlings;
  • deliver a unique, singular voice.

Along with these challenges, I love the notion of getting in and getting out, the idea of swiftly painting a picture that is clear enough to let a reader know what’s happening, yet one that also allows readers to fill in the blanks vis-à-vis their own imagination.

I’m far from an expert on the art form, yet I do think the best flash writing gives readers pause after they’ve finished a piece: it stops them from going onto the next because something shocking or wholly unexpected has just happened, or perhaps the writing was simply so taut and sonically rendered that there’s no other choice than to let it simmer, almost soul-like inside you.

Of course there are all types of flash fiction and just as many kinds of motivation for writing it.

I most like being able to take scraps of memory or biography, or maybe just a lovely-sounding line, wrap it in fraud, and then pepper gunpowder throughout the piece. The title of Kevin Samsell’s flash and story collection, “Creamy Bullets,” is a good description of the type of writing I hope to create: creamy bullets. Bullets that bite, while also having the tendency to simultaneously soothe.

While reading novels, we live with the characters for weeks and years, getting to know their idiosyncrasies and foibles. Novels transport us and often occur over great time spans. Reading a novel requires an investment. It demands patience and diligence.

Flash fiction is usually the opposite of all these things. Flash is a shotgun blast, or even a single piece of shotgun shrapnel plucked from within the greater blast. It’s immediate and jarring. The investment necessary is simply a few minutes.

We are lucky today, to see the proliferation of both styles of writing; having our cake and eating it, too.

To the novelists, I say, Bravo! Keep at it. We need you.

To the flash writers, I say, Keep dropping those bombs. Write on. We need you more than you might know.


Len Kuntz is the author of The Dark Sunshine available from Connotation Press and at editor at the online literary magazine Metazen. You can also find him at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI’ve always thought the best horror stories camouflage themselves with deceptive ordinariness, luring you in until it’s too late to escape the bad place you’re heading towards. The quiet anguish of Rebecca Schwarz’s The Horses (6/2/13) left my heart pounding.

Schwarz takes a subject that usually gets the full-screen spectacular treatment, so to speak, and with simple details of a workman’s duties gives us a vista of infinite loss.

Seven people commented, out of a total of 21 who chose to vote; five of them were strongly positive though only I specified my rating (five stars). The story ended up at an overall 3.8 rating.

The danger in making one’s points obliquely is that many readers won’t be enticed by the clues you drop for them. I didn’t feel that Ms. Schwarz was making us work too hard.

But the story does ask us to think. I don’t believe “flash” is synonymous with “quick read.” I tend to linger over phrases and paragraphs, to stick with it until I’ve gotten all the marrow from a piece that’s shown me it’s worth savoring.

To give further details here is to give away the game. Take a look at The Horses and see why I found it unforgettable.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.


by Samuel Snoek-Brown


Jonis Agee’s “From the Texaco Station Behind My House” is a mere 158 words, including the title, which actually doubles as the beginning of the first sentence: “From the Texaco station behind my house come the squeals of pigs fighting in the long silvery truck parked under the lights.”

I once took a writing workshop from Texas writer Robert Flynn, and one day he tossed us the axiom that in a short story the main character ought to appear on the first page—if possible, in the first sentence. Jonis Agee’s story adheres to this rule but perhaps not in the way we might think.

The narrator is clearly important here. But the main character isn’t the narrator, nor is it the pigs squealing in the semi trailer. The main character here is the physical setting, “the Texaco station behind my house,” so front and center it’s not only in the first sentence, it also serves as the title.

Most writers know that place is as important to a good story as character and plot are. But with so little space in flash fiction, we often have to focus on one at the expense of the others, and often that means plots become simple and settings become generic. We still pay exquisite, specific attention to detail, but those details are all working toward giving flesh to human beings.

But consider the masterwork that is Raymond Carver’s “Little Things.” In it, Carver tells us almost nothing about the fighting couple except their gender (and we get even less about the baby they’re fighting over—both characters only ever refer to it as “the baby,” a stroke of dehumanization and objectifying that sets up the climax).

Little Things” seems to violate that Robert Flynn rule to mention the main character in the opening, because while this story is very much about this man and woman and their baby, none of them shows up until the second paragraph. Instead, Carver opens on setting, describing the weather and giving us little glimpses of the house where this fight takes place. He even gives us some direction, an almost cinematic movement from exterior to interior.

Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.

The genius of this opening is that while it is clearly about the setting—the weather, the time of day, the house and its position in the neighborhood—it also manages to give us everything we need to know about the characters and their situation.

The man and woman have been frigid toward each other, and while they’ve thawed enough at least to talk to one another, their thoughts are still muddied with anger: “the weather turned,” “the snow was melting into dirty water.”

They’re both still focused on the past: “the [. . .] window that faced the backyard.”

The rest of the world is moving on as if nothing unusual was happening: “cars slushed by.”

But the mood is getting tense: “it was getting dark on the inside.”

This is an excellent example of place and character responding to each other. It’s obvious how the weather and time of day are affecting the mood inside, but it’s important to note that the reverse is true, too: as the mood becomes darker inside, the light becomes darker outside, and we understand in the first paragraph that the outcome of events between the characters will have ramifications far beyond “the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard.

As I noted with the Jonis Agee story, I often like to think of setting as character, or at least as the obverse of the character coin. In a tightly written and carefully crafted story, setting and character can serve very similar roles. Each determines as much as the other; each responds to the other.

Setting, as the space in which characters act, affects not only what those characters can do but who they are and who they are going to become. “One cannot do in a thunderstorm what one does on a hot day in Jordon,” John Gardner writes in The Art of Fiction.

In “Little Things,” the size and location of “the little shoulder-high window” in that opening paragraph indicate a small space. Cramped, the fighting characters cannot help but confront each other and escalate their argument. The man is in a bedroom packing to leave, but all it takes for the woman to spit vitriol at him is that “she came to the door,” as though she were already a mere pace away.

When she leaves and the man follows, they are immediately in the living room. No mention of any hallway, so small is this house. And when the man demands the baby that the woman is protecting, she is standing “in the doorway of the little kitchen.”

That’s it. That’s the whole house. You could draw a floorplan: bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen. All little squares inside one slightly bigger square, nowhere to go, nowhere to escape.

I won’t give away the sobering ending of the story, but it ends in the only way the house leaves room for.

I won’t give away the gut-punch ending of Agee’s story, either, but I will reveal that it ends the way it begins: on place. Except now that place is in motion as the narrator’s gaze shifts from the Texaco station to take in a wider world. And that motion is important, because it reveals in the end what Carver’s story revealed in the beginning: the character here has been affected by the setting, and the setting in turn changes to reflect the character.

That change is the story. And it’s a story that wouldn’t be possible without so strong a sense of place.


Sam Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in Portland, OR. He also works as production editor for Jersey Devil Press, and lives online at snoekbrown.com. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Ampersand Review, Fiction Circus, Eunoia Review, Red Fez, SOL: English Writing in Mexico, and others. He’s the author of the flash fiction chapbook Box Cutters, and of the novel Hagridden, for which he received a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship.


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI loved Wilma Bernard’s Vegetarian (11/4/12).

This little gem takes readers on a creepy road trip from youthful awkwardness to utter insanity, and I didn’t feel any bumps along the way.

One of fiction’s grand purposes is letting us indulge in the seriously anti-social without tears. It’s always cheering to see the bad guys flattened by karma.

Sometimes the bad guy is just heedlessly crass rather than an archetype of villainy. That plotline demands even more skill from the writer, since readers are likely to feel uncomfortable about overkill.

Despite that, Vegetarian earned a very respectable 3.8 stars after 24 votes. Most of the ten commenters enjoyed it.

I was reminded of the voice in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Plath is not a writer I admire—I found her poetry, and her manner of death, self-indulgent to the extreme. But the first-person narrator of The Bell Jar has a nice sense of gallows humor as she describes her own descent into the tar pit of mental illness.

Bernard’s narrator isn’t quite as clear-eyed about herself, and doesn’t need to be. She’s painting a different sort of portrait.

Take a look at Vegetarian. Perhaps you’ll consider it the perfect little bite too.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.


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