Writing flash fiction for the first time can seem like an easy task. After all, it’s only 1,000 words. How hard could it be? Answer: very hard. This is because knowing how to write flash fiction means you have a full understanding of how a normal, regular length short story works and you are able to take all of that and make it tiny.
Given that we read so much flash fiction on a regular basis here at The Arcanist, we wanted to sit down and go through some tips and tricks when it comes to flash fiction to make sure your story is well-crafted enough to submit for publication anywhere.
Let’s get started.
First Off, What Is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is simply a short story told in less time. Many publications look for flash fiction stories that are 1,000 words or less, though some may have slightly higher word count caps that can even reach 1,500. But if you plan on writing a good piece of flash fiction, we recommend sticking to 1,000 words because it will give you the most options for publication.
Now, even though flash fiction is super short compared to typical short stories — which are usually around 3,500 to 7,500 words — that doesn’t mean that writers can ignore the core tenets of short story craft.
First and foremost, flash fiction stories should be complete stories. They should have a beginning, middle, and end. A character should be active, making choices that progress the plot. In other words, flash does everything a short story does in less time, making them tricky to write because concision is a tricky thing in itself.
“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Why Write Flash Fiction?
Though writing a concise piece is challenging, the short length of a flash fiction piece also makes them a lot easier to hammer out and edit. If you are editing a 7,500-word short story — one that needs significant rewrites — it’s going to take you far longer to polish it enough to send out or complete.
With flash fiction, you can rewrite the whole thing in less time. Just remember, the most important thing to have in your flash story is an actual story. That sounds weird, and we’ll talk about it more in a little bit, but it’s true.
“Flash fiction slush piles tower as high as those for longer forms, but the rewards are similar — and with a flash story, you’ve likely spent less time writing and revising,” writes William Highsmith from Writer’s Digest.
“Opportunities run the whole gamut of publishers, and flash publishing credits can count toward those you need to qualify for membership in professional writing organizations such as the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association.”
By understanding flash fiction, you can ensure you know what a story consists of, you can get your feet wet with publishing, and you can start building an actual portfolio. Once you’ve mastered the flash fiction format, you’ll find it much easier to tackle longer, more detail-driven works.
Okay, so now you know what a flash fiction piece is and why writing them is important. Let’s dig into craft.
How to Write Flash Fiction: Getting Started
The first step of any story is to figure out what story you want to tell. Now, I’d like to just say that there is a way to come up with stories that worked every time, but it’s impossible. There’s no trick to coming up with a story, though they all start from single ideas.
Once you have that idea in mind, it’s time to do a little pre-planning by asking yourself a few important questions to help flesh out the idea and make it into a full-blown story.
Flash Fiction Question One: Whose Story Is This?
This seems like a weird question. Of course, the story is your main character’s right? Okay, well then you have to make sure that when you write the story that they are the active character. They make choices, the story is about their struggle, they experience the story.
This sounds like a no-brainer but it’s quite common to start a story with one character in mind and slowly gravitate towards another. Thinking critically about whose story it is will help keep you on track.
In flash fiction, you don’t really have time to explore a bunch of characters. When starting out, we recommend taking one character and exploring them. If you end up with a bunch of characters that you love, don’t fret, though, because you may just have a longer story on your hands. This is perfectly fine! Remember, some stories aren’t meant to be flash.
Flash Fiction Question Two: What Does Your Character Want?
To make a good story, your character should want something. This doesn’t mean that they need to want to save the world from bad guys or that they need to strive for some crazy outcome. They just need to want something. You could conceivably make a character that only wants a cup of coffee.
“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
By giving them something to strive for — even if it’s mundane or not world-changing, helps keep them active and involved in what’s going on. Your characters shouldn’t be bystanders in their own story.
Flash Fiction Question Three: What Is Keeping Them From Their Goal?
A story is basically a retelling of a struggle. The character wants something — a cup of coffee, for example — but what’s in the character’s way of getting that cup of coffee? A dragon? A ghost? Anxiety? It could be whatever your heart desires.
The point is to test your characters. To see what they will do and what happens when they make that choice. Choose Your Own Adventure stories are compelling because they put the decision making power into the hands of the reader. Imagine a story that had no choice, no conflict. It would be very, very boring. Even in a flash fiction piece, which is only a couple hundred words long, inactive, passive characters make 1,000 words feel like a lifetime.
Here’s Vonnegut again (he’s great at explaining how stories work):
“Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
What you decide to put in your character’s way is up to you. Every story is different and every character may want different things. The choices they make need to be impactful regardless.
Flash Fiction Question Four: Why Now?
Weird question, right? “Why now?” What could that mean? It’s actually simple: why is this story happening now or why are you telling it now?
This is a great way to ensure that there is something happening in your story. The reason the story about a person who wants to get a coffee is happening now is that the action is happening now. The character went to get a coffee. Something happened. That something is the reason why you’re telling the story. It’s the call to action.
For flash fiction, you want to align the start of your story as close as you can to that problem. Why would you start a story about a person going to get coffee with them waking up, taking a shower, getting dressed, and finally leaving the house when you can start a story on the walk to get coffee?
Starting your story too early is a flash fiction killer. Though the story is only 1,000 words long, readers will stop reading if they get bored. Also, there’s just no room for all kind of unnecessary bits in flash fiction.
One way to get around this is to write the story longer than 1,000 words and see where you should start your story. In order to get the person out the door to get coffee, do you need to mentally start when they wake up? That’s fine. After you get that figured out, though, go back and edit it all down.
Flash Fiction Question Five: What Is This Story About?
Another riddle! What is this all about?
This question is another way to make sure that your story — the one you put on paper — is aligning with what you imagined it being. If you have a premise in mind for your story, you need to make sure that you hint at what you want the readers to consider through the action of the story.
For example, if I want to write a sci-fi story about how scary AI or some other form of tech is, I can make the person getting the coffee have a hard time because of some tech thing. That’s the hurdle.
So, when you ask yourself: what is this story about? Think back to what happens in it and then try to find a way to make it about a secondary layer. First and foremost, something has to happen in your story.
Make Sure Something Happens In Your Story, Especially For Genre Writing
You’d be surprised how easy it is to write a flash fiction story that has nothing happen in it. This is especially true for genre writers who have a great premise in mind — but lack a story to back it up.
To better understand this, let’s take a look at a generalized sci-fi premise.
Right now, AI is a hot sci-fi topic for obvious reasons. So, if you have an idea for how AI can run amok and be detrimental to humanity, you need to show that idea through story instead of writing what can only be described as a flowery sci-fi prose poem or essay.
What does that mean?
Well, whenever you have a complex idea for something that tackles something from the real world, it can be really easy to slip into an almost essay-like format where you use characters to walk around and explain how things are bad and we need to be careful if we don't want them to take over humanity.
So, instead of having a story where a character is confronted with a problem with AI, you get a story where a character is meandering around a world you created without actually doing anything, making a choice, or progressing a plot.
And while that’s a good exploration for you, the writer, to do in order to flesh out your tale, it’s not something that readers, especially flash fiction fans, want to see.
The takeaway here is that your story needs action. You need to take a wonderful premise and make sure the story behind it is just as amazing. A good premise is easy. A story is hard.
Know the Golden Rule: Show Don’t Tell
When learning how to write flash fiction, you may feel like you have to tell a lot of details to the reader in order for them to be able to jump right into your story.
This isn’t true.
Start with action. Show how the character feels. Show how the world looks. Show why a choice needs to be made.
If you tell the reader everything, your story will fail to engage the reader and it comes off as a summary of your story that lacks depth. For example, the coffee story from above. If you were to tell instead of show the action, the story would be only a few sentences long and completely boring.
“I needed a coffee. I went to get coffee. There was a dragon. I killed the dragon so that I could get my coffee.”
This leaves you, as a reader, going: Why? How? Why do I care? The reader wants to see and feel the person going to get coffee. They want to understand why they want it enough to fight a dragon. How did they slay the dragon? How is the character now different from how they were before this unexpected quest?
If you show, these questions will unravel inside the imagination of your reader, which is exactly what you should aim for in any type of fiction.
Where to Start Your Flash Fiction Story
This sounds easy, too, right? You start at the beginning.
Of course, you do. However, it can be very easy to start writing and realize that the story doesn’t actually start until paragraph three. With flash fiction, you don’t have time for all of this exposition, scene setting, and other tactics used by longer forms.
This happens quite a bit with flash fiction and is a reason why many stories get passed on by editors. With flash, you have to start your story when something happens or is happening. We mentioned this briefly earlier, but here is a quick example using the same coffee story.
Let’s say that instead of going to get a coffee, your character is confronted with a conflict after getting the coffee. Maybe buying a coffee triggers the aforementioned dragon to come bursting through the floor or some other crazy thing.
You don’t want to start your story when the character is walking slowly to get the coffee. You need to start it either right outside the door of the coffee shop or right when the character is buying the coffee. This gets us into the thick of it as soon as possible, which allows you to show your character in action, making choices.
“Start as close to the end as possible.”
— Our boy, Vonnegut, again.
The Middle and the End
We’ve talked a lot about beginnings and how to kick off a great tale, but it’s also important that your story has a great middle and end as well.
If you set up a conflict, the end should — logically — be the resolution of that conflict. We should get a sense of what that conflict resolution means to the character or the world. We need to see the results and feel the weight of the character’s choices.
For flash fiction, there are two really good ways to pull this off. You can either go the traditional short story route — which involves the choice and the result of that choice — or you can go with a ‘reveal’ ending.
Since we’ve talked a lot about the choice ending already, let’s get into the reveal.
Basically, a reveal ending is when something occurs at the very end of the story that makes other aspects of the story click into place. The choices the characters made now make more sense. There is a light illuminating things that you didn’t know you didn’t know.
This type of ending, though hard to pull off, gives the reader a really cool feeling of satisfaction that’s different than mere conflict resolution. Flash fiction is all about these type of endings.
What About the Middle?
The middle of the story is where you — the writer — has the most freedom. The middle exists solely to muddle the character’s final choice, to push them to the brink, and to flesh out the world, giving us the answer to most of the questions we asked before.
If you were to look at a story split into word count along three acts, you’d have the first act — Act One, or The Call to Action — being pretty short. Here you want to get to the point, make your characters do something, and then move into Act Two.
Act Two should be the longest part of your story because this is where your character/s will be moving around, making choices, fighting dragons, exorcizing demons, etc. Act Three should be just as short or shorter than Act One because — in flash fiction — you don’t have time for a lot of falling action. The end of the story and climax typically happen really close to one another.
Putting It All Together
If you follow these simple rules and keep them in the back of your mind when you make edits on your piece, you should be well on your way to having a well-craft piece of flash fiction.
We recommend you write a first draft that explores all of the areas you want to cover and then rewrite it to make sure it aligns with proper storytelling techniques.
Remember that your first draft will never be perfect. First-thought-best-thought is typically a poor way to do business. Start by writing your story, examining if you started it at the right spot, put your characters through some type of conflict, and have them resolve it or have their final choice reveal information that fundamentally changes the way the reader felt about the piece.
And, the most important tip of all: write. You’ll never get better unless you put words on paper.
Have a flash fiction piece you think would be a good fit for The Arcanist? Check our submission guidelines here.