I’ve never considered myself much of a flash fiction author, but looking at my catalog of published work, I find a handful of them there, and in most cases my stories are in good company. I’ve always felt that writing good flash was a bit beyond my reach.
Truly talented authors manage to create a perfect blend of plot, detail, and emotion into something that can stay with the reader for hours, days, even years. Luckily, I was ignorant enough to think it was as easy as it looks–lucky for me, not the poor editors who might have read the attempts–because if I had realized how difficult it really is, I don’t think I would have even bothered trying.
A typical contemporary short story of about 2000-3000 words has plenty of breathing room. Heck, you can even fit a couple of character arcs in there if you really want to. Now here’s the thing that amazes me, a skilled author can do that same thing in 500 words.
How do they do it?
Gosh, I couldn’t tell you for sure; I’m still trying to figure it all out. But I do have some suspicions based on some general observations of successful fiction.
Like any other type of creative endeavor you intend to share with an audience, the first and foremost rule is:
When you engage the reader deeply enough that they read on, you’ve succeeded as author. If you don’t capture the reader’s attention, then unfortunately you have failed. Sorry, try again. That being said, engaging is a subjective thing, but majority wins. Artistically successful authors don’t pander, but they aren’t spewing out complete gibberish either, right?
The next thing I’ve noticed is flash fiction, like any fiction, must contain conflict. I think scope is important here; flash is often about capturing a brief period of time.
A picture of your dog: boring
A picture of my dog: boring
A picture of one doggy-bone: boring
A picture of your dog, my dog and one tasty doggy-bone: a flash story.
Without conflict you don’t have a story, without conflict you won’t engage the reader. It seems reasonable to to keep the scope as tight as possible. Of course you’ve got plenty of room to build some implicit meaning with dramatic symbolism; perhaps one of those dogs is a mangy old stray, and the other is frilly pampered pet.
Stated inversely, very few authors could pull off a flash fiction that encompassed the complexities of say, World War II. Then again some might be able to. Maybe you’re one of them; it’s certainly worth a try. To paraphrase Hemingway, big emotion doesn’t necessarily come from a big story. Personally, I’m not going to worry about big until I’ve mastered small. Simple is beautiful.
After the scope of the conflict is properly sized, I think the most important thing is detail. Flash fiction is not only about capturing the perfect moments, it’s about capturing the imperfect moments as well. Imperfections make it real, imperfections make it engaging . . . does that stray have fleas? I hope so, because fleas are creepy and crawly and gross. And I like that. As a reader, minutia is what puts me in the story, it’s a form of equity the writer builds, it can carry me over the rough spots later on.
Often a good piece of flash has a punchline of sorts. Was there a third dog hiding in the bushes that bounded out and stole the bone while the first two were fighting? Yes? Good, I didn’t see that coming. Truth be told twist endings are actually much more advanced technique than they first appear. As a lifelong bibliophile I’ve seen it all; it’s hard to surprise me. I suspect a lot of readers feel this way. As a new writer, I’m probably not really clever enough to pull this off yet, but I don’t let that stop me from trying. Practice makes perfect.
Finally, I think word choice is so much more critical in flash. Short stories have a small amount of leeway–tone and theme have a little wiggle room . . . novels even more so, but in a flash story every single word should be meticulously considered. The right word, in the right place can save you a whole sentence elsewhere. But I stress right, avoid using words you wouldn’t use in conversation with a fellow writer. An esoteric, discommodious, multisyllabic word might leave your reader . . . annoyed. Try to avoid that.
So that’s all I know about flash fiction, and a good bit of what I know about story telling in general. As you can see, it would easily fit into a thimble with plenty of room to spare. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to seeing your flash stories.
Bosley Gravel, eclectic hack writer, was born in the Midwest, and came of age in Texas and southern New Mexico. His fiction focuses on the absurdly tragic, and the tragically absurd. He likes good black coffee, nightmares, Billie Holiday, and that hour just before the sun comes up. His genre fiction has been podcasted at Well Told Tales, The Dunesteef, and published at Macabre Cadaver, Reflections Edge, Tales from the Moonlit Path and many others. He also rather shyly admits to a hacking out a few literary short stories which have appeared in Shalla Magazine, The Deepening, The Fabulist, and Every Day Fiction. He has a gothic horror novella coming out on March 15th 2009, in ebook format produced by Shadowfire Press, and has placed a story in the upcoming Dead Bait Anthology by Severed Press. Check his site for links to these stories and more, plus reprints released under the Creative Commons License.