by Instructor Phil Jason
Flash Fiction is probably not new (certainly it was hard to write a novel when you were living in a cave, running from predators, and had a vocabulary of only two hundred words), but the advent of Internet publishing has brought more attention to the short short form (stories under 1000 words). If you’re interested in giving it a try, here are some tips to help you get started:
1. Throw out your idea of what a story is!
When you ask most people what a story is they will mention things like plot and characters, beginnings, middles and ends. Yes, a short short can have all those things, but it doesn’t have to and you shouldn’t get caught up in the idea that a story needs them. One of the most famous pieces of short fiction ever written is this six word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This story has no defined characters. It has no traditional beginning, middle or end. It is a single, characterless moment with the power to evoke something in the reader. If your story has that power, it doesn’t matter what form it takes or how much it resembles what most people think a story is.
2. No time for explanations!
In longer fiction, there’s space to stop and explain things like how a character traveled through time. In short short fiction, explanation is a luxury. Since we usually explain things only when they seem extraordinary, try not to signify that anything is extraordinary. No matter what a character does, no matter how many times he or she travels through time, write about it the same way you would write about someone eating a bowl of a cereal. Don’t give the reader a reason to stop and question things and they probably won’t need an explanation.
3. Trust the reader’s experience to do some of the work.
When writing fiction, much work goes into establishing common ground between you, the writer, and the reader; hundreds or even thousands of words just to create a bridge between the world in your imagination and the imagination of the reader. But there are experiences that the writer and reader already share that can be used to quickly establish that link. One example would be childhood. While you can write an entire novel about one specific childhood, it’s also possible to call upon certain significant aspects of childhood in a small number of words. For instance, we all were at some point not taken seriously by an adult and most of us have potent memories of the sting of it. In a few lines, maybe even one line, a writer can summon that powerful experience in the reader and then build his or her story in that place.
4. Choose the best words, the best sentences, the best descriptions.
Flash fiction is not a medium for lazy word choices, mundane sentences and cliché descriptions. You have 1000 or 500 or even 100 words to dazzle the reader, and you’re not going to do it with sentences like “The roses were pretty.” Make the sentences and words do all the work they can. “The roses exerted the beauty of the cosmos.” “The roses hung above the cracked sidewalk like suns.” The reader shouldn’t just read your words, the reader should feel them like they’ve never felt those words before.