elements of story

by Robert Swartwood

FFC published this article by Robert Swartwood in April of 2009 about a form of flash Robert named Hint Fiction. He then ran a contest that led to the publication of hint fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer. Robert recently announced a new contest. Submissions are open for the month of April. The link to the contest appears at the end of this article. –Jim Harrington


Flash fiction isn’t anything new. It’s been around since the time of Aesop.  Why it’s becoming more prominent and popular today is because of this nifty digital age in which we now live.

Modern men and women have established severe forms of ADD — they don’t like sitting still for extended periods of time, and looking at long lines of text on a computer screen? Forget it. Twitter just proves this new disorder by giving 140-character updates of just about anything — there is even an online magazine published in the Twitter format, and one author has even begun to serialize his novel using the application. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next year or two a new service is invented, a complete knock-off of Twitter, that displays updates of only 70-characters, because, let’s face it, 140-characters is just TOO MUCH.

Actually, the question I want to present now isn’t what’s too much.

It’s what’s too little.

Nearly everyone is familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The legend of where this piece came from varies in detail, but basically Hemingway was challenged to write a story in just six words; he came back the next day with that little ditty, what he supposedly claimed was his best work.

Now do those six words constitute a story?

Some people think so; some don’t.

Some argue that there is no protagonist, no conflict, no beginning, middle, end.

Some argue that you don’t necessarily NEED a protagonist, conflict, a beginning, middle, end to make a story.

What is a story, after all? I’m not going to try to debase it by dissecting its Merriam-Webster definition. Everyone has his or her own skewed opinion of what it means.

Some are hardcore traditionalists who require the beginning, middle, end, protag, conflict, the whole nine yards. To them if any of those pieces are missing, then it’s not a true story.

Others are more lax. They understand inference plays a great part. After all, imagination IS key, but at what point does a writer depend too much upon a reader’s imagination?

Personally, I’ve always believed a writer should try to find a strong middle ground in his or her storytelling — a place where they can meet the reader halfway, just giving enough detail that the reader’s imagination is then able to fill in the rest. Those, I believe, are the best type of stories, because the reader becomes engaged in the process.

Good flash fiction demands this of its readers.  It only gives so much, enough that the reader can fill in the blanks, help finish the painting, and then, at the end, can marvel at its brilliance.

But what about those really, really, really, really, REALLY short stories?  The, you know, six-word stories.  Are they considered flash fiction?  If not, what should we call them?

Me, I want to coin a term, so I’m going to do it here and now: those very, very, very, VERY short stories should be called Hint Fiction. Because that’s all the reader is ever given.  Just a hint.  Not a scene, or a setting, or even a character sketch.  They are given a hint, nothing more, and are asked — nay, forced — to fill in the blanks.  And believe me, there are a lot of blanks.

What is the word limit of Hint Fiction?  Well, if a drabble is 100 words, and a dribble is 50 words, then how about we say Hint Fiction cannot be anything more than 25 words.

One of the biggest hints in Hint Fiction is the title.  It’s like the setup to a joke, and the “story” is the punch line.  Without the one, the other won’t work.

For those of you wrinkling your noses right now, try to relate this to abstract art. Is a painting of three joined panels — one blue, one yellow, one red — art?  You’re probably thinking no, but I guarantee you there are some who would pay thousands for such a piece.

Here’s another question: Is Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night art?

Almost all of you will probably agree that it is.  And why do you think this?  Because ever since your very first art class in school you were told that it was art.  You were told that van Gogh was a genius and that The Starry Night is one of his masterpieces.

Let’s face it, art is subjective.  Either we like it or we don’t.  The same goes with flash fiction and, now that I’ve coined the term, Hint Fiction.  We can argue about Hemingway’s six-word story, or any piece of Hint Fiction, until we’re blue in the face.  In the end we won’t change any minds. We know what we know and we think what we think and nothing is going to change that.

If you haven’t realized it yet, I’m far from being a staunch traditionalist. I like trying new things. I think writers should be encouraged to try new things. It’s not always going to work, of course, but at least you tried, and that’s the important part.

As Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Now go out there and spread the good word about Hint Fiction.

Just remember to tell them who sent you.


Here’s the link to a follow up article we published in April of 2010, and here’s the link to the contest.


Robert Swartwood lives in Pennsylvania.  His Hint Fiction has appeared in elimae, Lamination Colony, and The Northville Review.

by Angela Rydell

Angela Rydell

 The very short story writer compensates like a blind man navigating the world with his all senses heightened—empowered because of it, not beaten down.

Flash writers confront a challenge unique to the genre. We’re not just short story writers but “very” short story writers, keepers of the koan-like question, “How do you get more out of less?” The answer requires not just craft but craftiness. Fewer words expand rather than diminish the possibilities for creativity—as long as you’ve got a few tricks up your sleeve. The very short story writer compensates like a blind man navigating the world with his all senses heightened—empowered because of it, not beaten down. We take advantage of what we’ve got to work with, including the mystery of ambiguity.

Visual artists understand this mystery well. We’ve all admired the artist who skillfully creates a line drawing. My husband recently said of an artist friend of his, “In one line—barely picking up her pencil—she can draw a baby jumping over the moon.” This is the “less is more” we strive for.

A colleague of mine, Laurel Yourke, teaches ambiguity by invoking that classic optical illusion of the vase and the faces. The picture captures more than one image simultaneously, depending on your perception. But the lines are clear, as are both interpretations. They might take you a little while to find, but they’re both there. Ambiguity isn’t vagueness. The Latin ambi translates as “on both sides” or “both ways.” That’s the kind of ambiguity we need in a flash—clarity and mystery simultaneously. A few well-defined lines invoke multiple interpretations, and the reader’s imagination fills in the rest.

So what are some techniques we can use to make that happen? Here are seven suggestions for finessing ambiguity in a flash:

1) Maximize both denotation and connotation. A single word can provide more than one meaning. Consider the title of Nicky Drayden’s three sentence story “Pushover,” from Hint Fiction. Here’s the last sentence: “He’s worn me down, weaker than that railing at the canyon’s rim.” Our mind bridges the gap between title and the implications of “worn down.” Picks up on that weak railing, the significance of “canyon’s rim.” Meaning expands as we fill in the blanks, make the connections, and imagine an implied conclusion.

2) Focus image. Home in on a central image or object that stands for more than one thing. In “79:PM,” a story in Amelia Gray’s delightful first collection AM/PM, the protagonist admires her partner’s unusual gold leaf tattoo which makes “a pattern of fish scales across his spine.” She tells him it’s beautiful, and he responds in kind:

“You’re beautiful,” he said, turning his head halfway.
“Not as beautiful as a gold flake.”
He considered it. “Maybe not. It was a very special process.”
“Must have been,” Tess said. She felt sure she would die alone.

The story hinges on the tattoo, and conversation around it. That last line, delivered succinctly, resonates emotionally because each character reacts not just to each other, but to what the image represents. It’s less a question of beauty than where their relationship’s headed.

3) Use dialogue that does double duty. Look at the excerpt from Gray’s story again (quoted above). There’s no chit-chat or extraneous information. The dialogue’s got more than one job to do: It delivers theme. Delivers character. Provides surprising turns. Bare essential plot tensions—that “yearning, challenged or thwarted,” Robert Olen Bulter calls for in his essay in the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Dialogue, too, is best when it shows rather than tells.

4) Milk metaphor. In Robert Schuster’s “Eclipsed” (from Jerome Sterns’ classic Micro Fiction collection), the 250 word story opens with the central metaphor, which cuts to the heart of the story—fear of death:

“Anxious not to miss the coming darkness, Gavin woke early and watched Dad construct the viewers from boxes. Behind his pile of aluminum foil, cardboard and glue, Dad said: ”You see, when the moon passes in front of the sun, like this,” he held up his hairy fists before his eyes, ”my head, the earth, gets dark.”

The story centers on the eclipse, a strong symbolic core, as a young boy contemplates his father’s mortality. Double meaning abounds from beginning to end—the literal eclipse and the metaphorical.

5) Exploit contrast. Throw a purple pillow on a yellow couch, and because the colors are opposites on the color wheel, the pillow pops. In “Athens by Night” by Sandra Jensen, barely a line goes by without some kind of intriguing contrast. The setting embodies opposition: It’s Valentine’s Day, yet there’s a break up. They’re at the Athens Hilton—high status. But the young pov character is “drinking Coca Cola.” “Demitris the millionaire” proposes to the pov character’s mom, and the scene toys with highs—it’s a rooftop bar—and lows, plummeting at the end to the blunt, “We remained poor as dirt.” The juxtaposition inherent in good contrast allows readers to see distinctions even more clearly and intensely. Opposition’s implicit, and writers say more with less.

6) Nail irony. Reality’s hard to pin down, even in a three-hundred page novel. But irony, the ultimate literary contrast, nails incongruities between expectations and the realities we’re confronted with. Much good flash fiction thrives on it. Another memorable story from Sterns’ Micro Fiction collection, Maryanne O’Hara’s “Diverging Paths and All That,” finesses double irony as distracted Dollar Saver customers watch “Nixon resign on twenty TV sets” while a boy filches “Hershey bars and Bic pens” and quips, “I really save my dollars here.”

7) Embrace context. The phrase “context clues” might sound like a blast from the past, a high school English teacher telling you how to suss out meaning. But think of it in reverse. What clues are you going to give your readers so they can figure out what’s happening in the brief light of your flash? Too few, and readers scratch their heads, unsure whether a story that starts “shots pounded around him” is about a guy in a bar or a war zone. If the story doesn’t clear that up pronto, it’ll fizzle fast. Yes, you want to leave room for the reader’s imagination to fill in blanks. But you mustn’t leave too many blanks or too few clues to bridge gaps. A few context clues can make all the difference.

Whether or not Hemingway penned the classic six worder “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn,” the story’s stayed with us in part because the context (implied in “for sale”) allows readers to interpret the underlying tragedy. Like the clean structure of a good joke, very short stories need set up. But set up doesn’t mean a lengthy or even brief explanation of who’s who, where characters are and why readers should care. Often immersion’s the way to go. Let context clues orient the reader as the story unfolds, even if the whole story’s just a sentence or two. Subtly offer readers just enough clues to the mystery that lies ahead.


Angela Rydell is a poet, novelist, short fiction writer, and writing instructor. Her stories and poems have appeared in journals both in print and online, including The Sun, Indiana Review, NANO Fiction, Flashquake, Crab Orchard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review and elsewhere. Angela’s flash fiction won the Portland Review’s inaugural Flash Fiction Friday contest, was a finalist in the American Short(er) Fiction Prize, and received honorable mention in the New Millennium Writings Awards Flash Fiction Contest. She lives in Madison, WI, where she teaches creative writing courses in UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, including the online workshop Fiction in a Flash.


by Susan Tepper


James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. New writing and reviews at  Minneapolis Star TribuneHTMLGiantCamroc Press,Spry Literary Magazine,Spork Press,Em Review,Drunk Monkeys,Extract(s),Shelf Aware,The Galway Review,Writing.ie, and Blood a Cold Blue. Website at: http://www.jamesclaffey.com/

Susan Tepper:  Could your new book ‘Blood a Cold Blue‘ have been written without benefit of the Irish land and its landscape?

Blood a Cold Blue cover

James Claffey:  No. Without Ireland, my writing would be missing some intrinsic part of its makeup. Even in the stories not overtly set in and around an Irish polestar, my narratives are wrought from a place of surety, a place where I am grounded by the words and the rhythms, the cadence, the part of me that is comprised of a childhood surrounded by the noise and sights of home. Every part of every sentence I write is rooted in the songline. In a way it’s that resonance in the earth that calls us home, that almost subconscious knowledge of where we come from and how we can return there, even when we might be so far from home. I call on that sense of self every time I write, whether the story is set in a particular geographic space, or not. Beckett did this better than me, in terms of writing of a nameless place, and the markers are there for those of us who share that Irish/Celtic songline, and we hear the call of home in every phrase and passage of the narrative work.


ST:  I always feel, while reading your stories, that ‘place’ is the true protagonist.  That the characters make an appearance so that place can become timeless, infinite, for you as the storyteller.  And also for the reader.  Does this make sense?

JC: I agree, in terms of many of the stories in the book. The place is always there, the furniture, the physical features of the setting, and the characters who inhabit that space for the brief time of the narrative are one snapshot of all the stories that space has to tell. Maybe I can write a book where the place is a constant, and the stories move from year to year, and decade to decade—a bit like Proulx’s “Accordion Crimes,” where the object is the constant and the characters the variables. Place captivates me, the changing seasons, the slow movement of time, how a tree remains for decades, rocks and boulders for centuries, and when I look at something that will be there long after I’m gone, even a crack in plaster on a wall, I find myself finding an unimaginable sadness for the brief time we have to make our mark. In my novel that Thrice Publishing is bringing out, I write far more from a character-driven narrative thread, but the world it unfolds in, the streets and parks of Dublin, are the same ones I walked as a young person, still there, minor architectural changes, new storefronts, but always Ireland.


ST:  Your story The Night The Lights Went Out begins this way:

We sat in the collapsed basement; rain dripped off the snapped beams, wind flapped the rent curtains, and the smell of warm meat rose from the frozen mound in the corner.

In my opinion this story is brilliant. Apocalyptic. I was stunned by the way it ended.  It caught me off guard.  Did you know what was around the corner as the story moved along its path?

JC: Thanks, Susan. It’s a story I’m proud of because of the way it doesn’t fit into my “expected” writing style. I didn’t know the end when I started the piece. All I had was an image of an underground place, and the words, “ancient battles,” and an idea of two people sharing an experience beyond the ordinary. I’m always intrigued when I read of mammoths unearthed and of the possibility of eating the thawed flesh, so the notion of one of these ancient creatures stirring to life really appealed to me as a terrifying way to end a story about the end of the world. Something about the world ending with the resurgence of an extinct species spoke to me about the state of our planet, sort of a last, “Fuck you,” to the place.


ST:  Another story from this collection that I’d like to talk about is Bed-Making.  This cut me so deep.  I’m cut by most of your stories, but the tragedy unfolding in this one, with its quiet terrible outcome, struck hard.

I have two questions here:  Is death, of a sort, always hovering over your writing?  And, did you have a twin or is this entirely fiction?

JC:  Yes. Death is sempiternal in my writing. Ever since I was a small boy, in bed at night, waiting for my father’s breathing to stop, I’ve been consumed by the idea of death. Funerals and the ritual surrounding them are a feature of Irish life, and as a kid I was only allowed to be on the periphery of these events. My parents wanted to protect us from death, I suppose, and I wasn’t allowed to see the body, or go to the actual funeral, until I was in my teens. And certainly as I grow older, watch my kids grow, see my mother enter old age and deal with memory loss and inability to take care of herself properly, I find death is a constant itch that demands attention on the page.

Oh, dreams, the fuel of stories, mixed with the more temporal architecture of my family and home, place this story in a state halfway between fact and fiction. I had no twin, but grew up with a family in our neighborhood who had twins, so the idea of twins split apart and the grief that follows, appealed to my fiction writer’s sensibility.


ST:  If you had a twin, would you prefer a brother or sister?

JC: Oh, I’ve got three brothers, so I’d say, a sister. Thanks for the great interview, Susan!



Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd.  www.susantepper.com

by Shanti Perez

Dialogue is one indicator of a writer’s skill level and the shorter the piece, it seems, the harder the dialogue must “work” in a story. Since literary short stories tend to be character driven, there is even more pressure on dialogue to perform. As an editor I’ve come across short story submissions in which dialogue does nothing more than transcribe pleasantries between characters. Some inexperienced writers get bogged down in the How are you/I’m fine rituals of superficial chit-chat that serves a purpose in real life, yet adds nothing but word count in writing. So how does a writer create meaningful dialogue? I hope the following questions and examples are useful to you in your quest to master dialogue:

  • How does dialogue add deeper meaning and/or resonate within the overall story? Does it convey a form of double-speak, perhaps hinting about character motivations or working as an abstract thread that waxes meaningful later on? Is there another layer or subtext in the dialogue that isn’t obvious to readers right away? Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants”, written in distant third, lacks the direct exposure within the dialogue of what the characters are discussing—the subject becomes clear to the reader as the story progresses, maybe not until after a second read.
  • Does the dialogue say the opposite of what a character is actually saying/feeling? Are characters direct with each other or do they speak as if having two separate conversations, like they are disconnected or not listening to each other? Amy Hempel’s “Reasons to Live” begins with dialogue, which is often not recommended, but this well-crafted story has a “beginning that knows its ending”, as the author John Keeble has often mentioned while teaching MFA workshops. Hempel’s dialogue in “Reasons to Live” says in subtext all that remains unsaid in dialogue—quivering beneath what seems like trivial discussion between characters is something fundamentally human and heavy.
  • What is interesting about and what purpose does the dialogue serve? Is it necessary? Why say this? Why say it now?
  • How can dialogue be used to reveal character?
  • Which details are important to include in particular lines of dialogue? How are the right details chosen for dialogue to be effective in the overall story?
  • When is it useful to use pauses in dialogue?
  • How does dialogue impart tone and does it succeed without the writer telling readers directly, using description, how characters feel? Again, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” conveys tone through dialogue even though there is little, if any, glimpses of the character’s interiors.
  • Is the dialogue preaching to readers so that they will be turned off or feel insulted, or does it contain subtleties that allow readers to look into another world/viewpoint without feeling preached to or looked down upon? Fiction readers do not want a lesson, they want a story.
  • Pacing—does the dialogue match the story’s movement? In Samuel Ligon’s short story “Drift and Swerve”, dialogue is urgent and makes clear that something is going to happen “now”.

Let’s take a look at the following excerpt from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”:

“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”

“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

“Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t care about me.”

“Well, I care about you.”

“Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.”

“I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.”

The writing is succinct, there are no dialogue tags indicating the character’s feelings or body language, the tone is confident, masterful. Perhaps, if not done well, this presentation of dialogue would seem rigid, scripted or flat, but it is quite the opposite: intense, vague and yet detailed, rife with emotion, laden with subtext. Yes, the story requires close attention from the reader, but isn’t that the beauty of literature—the stories grow larger after additional readings?

I remember a professor mentioning once that dialogue in real life is not linear or straightforward, but abstract and that characters often do not even answer each other’s questions. Overhearing and writing down blurbs of dialogue while waiting in the car at the gas pump or dining at a restaurant, maybe, and examining conversation elements, everything from pacing to tone, interpretation to word choice, is rewarding to writers of all skill levels and may lead to story ideas. Still, there are some writers who admit that they do not even recognize the double meaning in their work until months have passed, after they’ve put a story aside and returned to discover it has multiple layers of meaning they’d never intended.

Writers perform the magic, taking dialogue and bringing it to life.


 Shanti Perez has an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and is the fiction editor for the online literary journal Open Road Review, which is headquartered in New Delhi, India. She is twice champion of the Spokane Inlander’s 101-Word Fiction Showdown. Her short stories and poems have been published in PANK and Denver Syntax. In spite of all this, most of Shanti’s time is spent catering to the whims of a flock of spoiled waterfowl, including a gander named after the late Freddie Mercury.

by Camille Griep 

While literary and mainstream flash formats have the advantage of utilizing assumptions about the world around us, speculative flash demands more attention to balance of craft. In order to immerse our readers in new worlds, we are forced to borrow word count and focus from conflicts and character arcs.

Tip #1: Economize the illustration of your new world.

Creating a speculative world in flash is a little like drawing a map for a lost stranger. Although back ways and roundabouts and shortcuts exist, your job is to provide the person the clearest path forward to the person with no bearings. Even though our authorial vision is a rich, elaborate world, highlighting only the significant landmarks of our new world allows the reader to move forward in the story, without weighing them down with unnecessary exposition. Although letting readers fill in the blanks can be uncomfortable, the discipline can be applied to any length of writing, welcoming the reader into the creative process and honing dull prose.

Tip #2: Timing is everything.

 When we tell readers details about our world is as important as what we tell them. If our world is made of bubbles and our protagonist is a cactus, we have to tell the reader these facts immediately. However, if the story starts in the morning, we probably don’t need to tell anyone about the smoldering blue sunset until one occurs. It’s also a good idea to eliminate tricky illustrations. If our readers are forced to double back on the path we’ve given them, we’ve interrupted our story and pulled the reader from our narrative. Instead of saying, “The cactus jumped up in the saddle after she had coaxed the horse with carrots,” telling the events in order ensures the reader isn’t forced to redraw the scene in their heads. Reading aloud or even sketching stick figures as you edit can help to catch these sorts of timing hiccups.

Tip #3: Be careful of encroaching reality!

Unless we’re writing urban fantasy set in our modern world, we have to give extra attention to presumptive metaphors and colloquialisms. If our world is an icy planet, it’s possible to confuse readers when we write, “her features froze,” or “his hair was snowy” the way we might if we were in another setting. Anachronisms and careless idioms can also give us trouble. If the currency of our world is chocolate bunnies, we cannot give our 2 cents worth or offer a penny for someone’s thoughts. Extra time and attention to word choice is imperative within this framework.

Tip #4: Eliminate repetition. 

If you are like most writers, inadvertent repetition tends to creep into most manuscripts. Flash doesn’t allot us enough space to waste time on these repetitive words, metaphors, and descriptive passages, except when it serves the plot or literary rhythm. In a longer format, sometimes we need to remind our readers of something we haven’t referenced in awhile, however, there is little danger of this in flash. In fact, if we begin to repeat ourselves enough, readers tend to skim, which makes flash particularly unsuccessful.

Weasel words, useless words and phrases we tend to overuse when we’re free writing, should also be searched out and eliminated. If our character is “very angry,” she might as well be “irate.” If our character “went by horse,” then “he rode.” My personal weasel word is “that.” Every story I write, I use find/replace to make absolutely sure each occurrence is necessary. I also find repetition is easier to spot when I have the time to let the story rest for a week or two between writing and editing. If you don’t have enough time or are up against a deadline, most word processors like Microsoft Word and Scrivener have a word frequency count to isolate words with multiple instances.

Tip #5: Integrate Description into action. 

Most of us have been admonished to write multi-tasking sentences, which are especially useful in speculative flash. Say we want to communicate three concepts: Carla is a woman made of cactus. She’s leaving by horse to defeat the Bubble Monster. The chocolate bunnies she needs to make her journey are melting in her pocket because of a bright blue sun. We can condense these ideas into one very hardworking sentence and immediately give our reader information we’ve deemed necessary. “Carla patted the chocolate bunny filled saddlebag with her prickly, green palm, cursing the insistent blue sun and the trail of bubbles she chased.” Our sentence tells us who Carla is, what is different about her, what is different about her world and two conflicts she faces. When we get into the habit of writing these kinds of sentences, we improve our prose in flash and beyond.


Camille Griep lives and writes near Seattle, Washington. She is the 2013 winner of The Lascaux Review Prize for Flash Fiction. Her work has most recently been seen at Skive Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and Infective Ink, among others. Anthologized stories can be found in Evil Girlfriend Media’s Witches, Stitches, & Bitches, Song Story Press’s Blaze of Glory, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal’s Best of 2013. Learn more about Camille at http://camillegriep.wpengine.com/.


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