elements of story

by Jeremy Szal

Jeremy Szal2

Obviously, not every story is suitable for podcasting. Some of the best tales ever penned may fall flat when translated over to the world of audio. In saying that, there are some things you can improve on, not just for a podcast, but for your writing overall. Here are five tips that should help you inch your way up and out of Dante’s nine circles of Hell, otherwise known as the slush pile.

Tip #1: Brevity

We’re talking short stories, so obviously you can’t afford to be lavish and extravagant, filling your paragraphs with endless descriptions of your character down to the shape of her skull. Don’t confuse this with length. I’ve seen flash fiction less condescended and more convoluted than some novelettes. It’s all about quick strikes to the yarbles, not slow, sluggish punches. Your short story can be touching the lengthy side, but it can still be moving at an incredible pace, not bogged down by weighty language and fluffy and mushy dialogue. Don’t try to squeeze a long story into a tiny one—you’ll just damage the material in the process. Instead, choose your words carefully. Give your work as much depth as you can without spilling overboard.

Tip #2: Don’t Play it Safe

As a writer, you’ll be bound to upset people with your fiction (I’ve received hate mail in the past). It’s inevitable. Writing is not an activity for people who value security. Worrying about what other people may think of the fiction you write (or what genre, for that matter) should not be your primary concern. In fact, it shouldn’t even come into the equation.

Don’t let political correctness censor or dampen your artistic integrity. At the same time, don’t go out of your way to upset or offend anyone, because you can sniff those stories out from the other side of the galaxy. But I do encourage authors to push the envelope and see what they can accomplish without fear of upsetting a blogger. Don’t be afraid to write from an alien perspective with a truly warped view of the human race. Don’t shy away from killing off or maiming your characters. Don’t restrain yourself from creating moral gravity or making your protagonist commit atrocities. I want to see more people take more risks and see what they can cook up. Don’t be afraid to shake up the recipe a bit and experiment. (Note I will not be held accountable if your kitchen goes up in flames.)

One only needs to look at the work of Mark Lawrence and his ground-breaking series The Broken Empire. Jorg, the first-person protagonist, is a complete and utter psychopath, depraved and sadistic. But this allows him to provide this world with a monumental amount of complexity and depth. It gives us stunning, darkly poetic prose that’s fresh, gritty and laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. The books pull no punches and don’t allow themselves to shy away from the raw brutality of life. That’s the fearless writing that I want to see. The journey may be difficult, but the reward is ever so bitter sweet. And better yet, it lingers in the throat for a very long time.

Tip #3: Solid Prose

This is just as important and perhaps is the most significant when it comes to podcasting fiction. You need spectacular yet recognizable language. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel. Traditional storytelling mechanics are always favored above semi-pretentious experimental approaches that your English teacher fawned over. Listeners are not interested in listening to long, lavish paragraphs of nothing, however beautiful they may be. And while we’re at it: a big no to phonetics. Anthony Burgess may have been able to do it in A Clockwork Orange, but it doesn’t mean that you can. You’ll tie the narrator’s tongue in a knot. Stick with the basics of good storytelling and compelling prose as opposed to trying to push the English language to new and unfortunate places. If you feel the need to do that, then I invite you to grow a mustache and march down to the nearest café with a rusty typewriter in hand, charging one coffee per poem.

Oh, and while we’re at it: no 2nd person. I mean this. Seriously. Just don’t.

Tip #4: Strong Character-driven Stories

This is a winner every time. Stories where the characters are the main driving force are compelling and reinvigorating, especially when it comes to science fiction. Fleshed out and captivating characters can make the most absurd of worlds seem real and ground the reader in the most bizarre of alien planets. It allows us to have a connection to this world we otherwise might not have had. It’s one of the reasons why the omnipresent perspective is so rarely seen in science fiction and fantasy. People want to be drawn into these worlds, and a well-written character is the conduit.

At the same time, make sure there’s a plot as well. If your character is a war veteran and a psychopath living in an overcrowded city ruled by self-righteous alien dictators, he can’t very well be plodding around his apartment, drinking herbal tea and staring out the window, contemplating philosophy and his life. No, he’d be out in the rain-drenched streets, looking for trouble. Except trouble finds him. Strong characters and a robust story go hand-in-hand. Take advantage of his. Let the character guide the reader through the world. Whether it’s in 1st person, 3rd, or even switching from multiple perspectives (I rarely recommend this, because in a short story, especially in a podcast, this can be very jarring and confusing. If you fairy dance the point of view like a ballet dancer on hot coals, then you’ll lose the narrator and the listener), seat us behind the character’s eyes and let the plot unfold.

Tip #5: A Good Podcast Narrator

Unfortunately, this one is out of your control for the most part. But a brilliant narrator can make all the difference in a story. It’s all about marrying the right person to the right narrative. Some narrators are better suited to doing gritty, visceral fiction from the perspective of a hardboiled war veteran who frequently doles out harsh curses. Others may find their place combining strong character voice and multi-layered dialogue. Some work best when reading beautiful prose and tight, evocative language. There are several things to take into consideration, and finding the best narrator for your story can be tough nut to crack. There’s no definite answer. I always read the story with a narrator style in mind, then try and match it up with the best suitor.

I cannot stress how important this is. The right podcaster can either bring a story to life in all its glory, or kill it off and leave it half buried in the mud.

Bonus Tip: No Polemical/message Fiction

In journalism, one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In fiction, one should never let a message get in the way of a good story. This might be obvious, but if you’re going to pen a story, the point of it should be to tell a story. Not provide a ham-fisted political argument that damns anyone and everyone except [insert random perspective here]. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t work with themes and topical subjects. 99.99979% of fiction does, but they interweave the fine threads of themes and issues into the story. It’s fine if a story has a message, especially if it doesn’t drag down the story along with it. But straight up, undiluted “messages” told in the form of a story? Nope.

Listeners want to be thrilled by your exquisite command of the English language, your deft ability to juggle character and plot, your meticulous crafting of alternative worlds and your down-to-earth dialogue and the believable characters who voice them. They don’t want to listen to a political/religious sermon as they drive to work or be told how evil a group of people are or have some “fact” hammered into them through explicit, preachy dialogue. If they wanted that, they’d pick up a newspaper or go to Tumblr. Podcasts aren’t the place to push an agenda. Again, this doesn’t mean don’t work with themes or controversial topics. By all means: do so! But no story’s existence should be to stuff an opinion down the throats’ of listeners.


Jeremy Szal is the assistant editor for Hugo award winning science-fiction podcast StarShipSofa. He has worked with many best-selling, award-winning authors, such as Peter Watts, Robin Hobb, Ian Watson, Adrian Tchaikovsky and more, helping to bring their work to life in audio. He is also a writer, having sold more than twenty-five short stories and nonfiction publications to various magazines, anthologies and journals. He has also received an Honourable Mention from Writers of the Future, and his short story Heart of Steel, published at Every Day Fiction was nominated for the 2014 Parsec Award. Find him on Twitter @jeremyszal or at http://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/

by Gloria Garfunkel


Lydia Davis is an exemplary and intellectual flash fiction writer. So why did she choose to translate Proust of all people, whose seven volume novel In Search of Lost Time, seems the opposite of flash fiction? Because I think a lot can be learned from his work to apply to flash fiction.

First of all, like me and a book of linked flashes I am writing, Proust struggled to decide if his book was memoir or novel. He felt he had tinkered enough with reality to call it a novel but he went back and forth because so much was based on memory, though distorted and deliberately recombined to express the essence of his meaning. That has been a major issue for me for some of my flash fiction that I submit to journals as fiction and they decide is nonfiction. Just because it sounds autobiographical doesn’t mean it is literarily so, and I think the writer should get to decide. Memoir is a sort of compromise, a little of this and a little of that, but not purely nonfiction or even creative nonfiction. I think it is in a class all itself but closer to fiction, which gives the writer more free reign to change reality. I like to call my work fiction simply to protect the identities of people I write about. But memoir can do that as well, since everyone knows memory distorts reality. Still, I think memoir is closer to fiction than to nonfiction.

Swann’s Way, the first volume, is Lydia Davis’ translation. Being set in childhood but told with the insight of an adult’s voice and perspective, the long meandering but structured sentences of sensual detail work well. If a story is told about childhood in the present, short sentences are the only option. Flash, like Proust, can easily flow back and forth, like poetry.

Proust did not pretend in any way to write chronologically. His fragments of memory were constantly shuffled around like pieces of a puzzle, like little shards of flash fiction looking for a home. He kept doing this in his revisions up to the last minute before publication. Like Proust, flash fiction plays with time, consciousness, and the levels of reality we experience. The only difference is that flash needs to be worked around a sense of tension to ground the story. Proust didn’t have to do that. He could take his time.

Proust tried to pack all the information of one particular thought in his long systemic meticulously crafted sentences. Flash fiction does that with one story. Lydia Davis, like Marcel Proust, is concerned with liminal states of consciousness, between waking and sleeping and that hypnogogic state of transition, as well as between versions of memory and reality. That is why Lydia Davis was such a perfect choice for this first volume of Proust’s memoir/novel.


Gloria Garfunkel has a Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University and was a psychotherapist for thirty years. She has since started writing flash fiction and memoir and published over fifty stories. She is working on two collections.

by Rohini Gupta

Rohini Gupta

So, there you are, trying to write another flash fiction story. You have written hundreds of them—surely it is easy? It’s not easy. It’s not difficult either. The best way I can describe it is—strange.

It’s like waiting for sleep to come. Some nights you are overwhelmed and lost in seconds, on others you count early morning bird calls and try not to look at the clock yet again.

Neither sleep nor story will come to heel on demand. They are, in fact, impervious to demands.

The best you can do is tidy up a bit, clear the clutter, make some space in your mind, and hope the weather is right. The mind needs to remain as blank as the page, but it’s an exciting blankness into which an idea can come softly, shyly, tiptoeing on silent feet, lingering in the dark, just out of sight.

A story is a wild animal, like the delicate footprints in Ted Hughes’s The Thought Fox poem. All you can do is wait patiently for it to emerge.

That is what I love about flash fiction—the risk. Never knowing what lurks in the thought forest until it comes out into the white sunlight of the page. Till then you can only guess, and whatever you guess will be way off the mark.

What will it be?

Which genre?

What voice?

Whose viewpoint?

Which words will come pouring out like a crowd of jostling, unruly children?

Who knows? And that is the beauty of it.

You will never know beforehand but one thing is certain.

It will surprise you. It will not be what you expect, barely even in the range of what you can imagine.

There is nothing small about flash fiction except the word count. In the tiny playpen of 1000 words or less, lies a universe of infinite possibility. With flash, and with short stories, every day is a new adventure. The longer forms of writing may not take you so close to the edge. Flash leaves you gasping in the rarefied air, with nothing but a crumbling cliff under your feet. That is the beauty, the sheer breathless risk of it, the dizzying jump off that ledge into depths unknown.

As you teeter at the edge, something will spark. A memory, an image, a character. From the mist, ghostly forms will come. Let them take you.


Go ahead, let go. You won’t fall in the same place twice. You won’t even fall in the same world twice.

And, there is usually a story at the end of it.

So, that is what I like most about flash fiction—living dangerously, never knowing the face of that stranger in the deep shadows—your next story.


Rohini Gupta is a writer living by the sea in Mumbai, with a houseful of dogs and cats while working on short stories, poetry and a book. Her blog is at http://wordskies.wordpress.com.


by Andreé Robinson-Neal


Happy 2015! Wait … we still have one 2014 loose end to tie: the Month in Review! In case you were tied up in wrapping paper or long lines, we want to give you a recap of the many bundles of joy our writers offered last month that you might have missed.

Mary-Jane Holmes got us into the spirit with one swan (as compared to seven) and shared how this lovely, creative, random, and original creature can develop into the best flash you’ve ever created. While we might have hoped for six geese to go along with Mary-Jane’s swan, Julie Duffy’s “A Funny Thing” did provide six delightful tips on how to craft a good comedic write. Or was it humor? Go check it out and decide for yourself.

We had no pear trees either but were treated to a peach of a list of flash fiction markets that each offered treasures of their own. Hopefully in between your holiday dinners and gift-giving you had time to write and these markets anxiously await your work. However, if you’re still agonizing over what you got down on that napkin between courses, know that you aren’t alone: James Claffey shared his thoughts on writing flash fiction and you might be re-inspired by his colorful explanation of his relationship to the genre. But if, like those ten lords rumored to have been jumping around for part of last month, you are leaping to submit your collection of flash fiction, check out the ten interview snippets from Bonnie ZoBell, who got the inside scoop on what some flash fiction editors and publishers say about story order. On the other hand, if you’re a few stories short of a collection, why not consider submitting one story to the Queen’s Ferry Press anthology? Jim Harrington got the particulars from editor Tara L. Masih, who shared that these anthologies collect the best and most innovative stories in a given year.

Some of the best gifts you’ll find in FFC are Susan Tepper’s UNCOV/rd pieces. Be sure to check out December’s offering with Harvey Araton, because it will be the last. Don’t worry — Susan will be back this year with something new, but in the meantime, enjoy her conversation with a journalist-author-who-writes-about-a-journalist.

And speaking of newspapers, Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s piece on inspiration was inspired by a recipe in the New York Times. Well, more to the point: the NYT recipe inspired a story and the whole experience inspired the piece. Get it? As Sarah said, inspiration comes from anywhere and you are sure to ponder the sources of your own as you read her December offering.

As our 2014 clock tick-tocked its way to a close, Aliza Greenblatt took a moment to introduce us to the EDF November top author, Angela Hui, whose story Birthday Girl got rave reviews. Before we close the book on 2014 and send our eleven pipers and twelve drummers back to the band, end your year with a laugh: Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s EDF Archive selection is a great topper from Samantha Memi.

Thank you for making 2014 a great year and we hope you’ll join us for more in flash fiction for 2015!


Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury—both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.


by Aliza Greenblatt


Angela Hui is a part-time student and full-time procrastinator who occasionally writes stories. She enjoys cramming for finals, reminiscing about her prep school days, and making the inedible edible. You can read about her (and her mommy’s) culinary exploits at hungryempress.com. Angela’s story Birthday Girl was EDF’s top rated story for November.

Aliza Greenblatt: I usually like to start interviews by asking the authors a little about themselves. What made you want to start writing? Is your focus primarily on short stories? Your bio mentions you are a student, what are you currently studying?

Angela Hui: I’ve loved writing short stories since I was in preschool. It’s fun, and I love the feeling of creating an entire universe from scratch. And I prefer writing flash fiction over, say, novels or longer short stories, because I just don’t have the stamina and patience for anything too long. After a while, I start to hate anything I produce. The more I read it, the worse it gets. I usually manage to finish writing a work of flash fiction before I want to delete the whole thing.

Right now, I am triple majoring in pre-med, English, and nutrition. Just kidding, I’m a junior in high school. I don’t know what I want to study later on.

AG: When you sit down to write a new story, what is your process like?

AH: It really varies. When I wrote Birthday Girl, the process was something like this: it was around 3am on a Sunday morning, and I’d just finished binge watching five episodes of SVU. I started having one of those moments of panic that we kids tend to have every other hour, and I thought, my goodness, I’ve accomplished nothing, I’ve become so lazy and stupid, it’s like I’m not even Angela any more! It’s like I’m an impostor. And then I thought, hey, what if someone also felt like she was just impersonating herself except it were actually true? What if a little girl were kidnapped but she didn’t know it? So in a wild frenzy, I typed out my story in about 45 minutes, completely neglecting all my homework. But at least I accomplished something!

AG: I found the reader comments on this story fascinating; there seems to have been some very different takes on who the narrator was and what her situation was. Can you tell us a bit about how you created the voice for this story?

AH: Well, “Jenny” is a child and so am I, so it wasn’t too hard to create a voice for her. I was truly intrigued by all the different interpretations as they stretched so far beyond what I had intended; that’s the beauty of literature, I suppose.

AG: I recently saw an adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations. This story reminded me of Miss Havisham’s character, whose heart breaks so badly she decides to freeze her life at that one particular moment. The difference here is that the narrator is the victim and doesn’t want time to hold still. So, if you could give this character the birthday present she always wanted, what would it be?

AH: If I could give her the birthday present she always wanted, it would be the one wrapped up in the old box that “Momma” never let her have. Other than that, she probably doesn’t know what she wants for her birthday because she doesn’t exactly go out much. Jenny’s pretty much a blank slate, to be honest, so she is whatever the reader wants her to be.

AG: What were some of your favorite parts about the story? What were some of the challenges in writing it?

AH: I know that my least favorite part is the ending because it felt awkward to me. I liked the very beginning, maybe the second paragraph, because I think it adds the most complexity to the kidnapper character. She’s not just an evil person who brainwashes and locks up a little girl. She’s so obviously crazy and delusional that it’s really pitiful and pathetic.

It wasn’t too challenging to write the story itself, but it was hard to work up the courage to submit it for publication. I didn’t think anyone would like it, but I’m glad some people did.

AG: What other projects are you currently working on? Are there other stories of yours, either upcoming or published, that you can point readers to?

AH: I am not working on any other literary projects at the moment, but I’m taking a fiction seminar next semester, so hopefully I’ll produce something worth reading. My main project right now is my family food blog, hungryempress.com.

AG: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors.

Aliza profile-pic-2

Aliza T. Greenblatt works in a firmly non-writing field when the sun is up and writes under a desk lamp at night. Fueled by a sheer love of books and a tyrannical imagination, she writes the stories that appear over her morning coffee and won’t leave her alone until they are put down on paper. She writes, raves, and blogs at http://atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter  @AtGreenblatt

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