They finally cornered him, his creamy mustache still visible. “You owe us for twelve bottles!”
The thief’s eyes surveyed the dank alleyway looking for an escape route. “I didn't take them, I'm lactose intolerant!”
The oldest sister, breathless from running while carrying a lead pipe, said, “We know. We tracked your gaseous trail since dawn.”
Writing flash fiction is a lot like writing poetry. Because of the word limitations, one must take their time discovering concepts and language that speaks beyond the text on the page. Sometimes the selected words must pull double- or triple-duty to get as much information across to the reader.
Here are some tips for writing effective flash fiction.
Consider writing poetry.
Poetry focuses on the same concepts and construction of flash fiction. In particular, learning how to write using recognized poetic forms like sonnets, pantoums, and sestinas can help train you to write conservatively and with precision. Even something as simple as a limerick or a haiku can be surprisingly difficult for a writer to construct effectively.
As one writes poetry, they expand their language skills and vocabulary. Understanding the different subtle definitions of a word can help one write with an overt initial reading with rippling undertones. This skill can help an author to evolve beyond writing a story that happens to be really short.
Find writing challenges.
There are several writing prompt websites such as Fish of Gold and Writing.com’s Daily Flash Fiction Challenge. Google can help to connect you to more. Forcing your brain to write with a specific concept or object in mind can both help you to focus and to open your mind to non-typical stories. These will also help to expand your skills and, at times, can even get you a publication credit.
Educate yourself with story construction lessons.
There are plenty of story construction articles and books to assist you with truly understanding how a story is built. Understanding the high-level concepts of story building can help you to write flash fiction (and longer projects.) Take the time to learn the tropes of the different genres, including ones you do not necessarily read on a regular basis. Suggested books include Story Engineering by Larry Brooks or one of the Writer’s Digest series. If you have the time, try one of Open University’s free courses on writing.
Practice makes better.
Practice doesn’t make you perfect, but it certainly does help you to improve. The more you focus on writing, the better you will become as a writer. The work you produce should be edited and sent out like the rest of your writing. You won’t get rich writing flash fiction, but you can occasionally make a few bucks and progress in your professionalism skills.
By the way, what is flash fiction?
There are several definitions and variants of what is considered flash fiction. Some venues believe flash is 300 words or less, while most consider 1,000 or less to be flash. Here are some common variants:
- 1,000 words or less: Flash Fiction
- 750-500 words: Sudden or Immediate Fiction
- 300 words or less: Micro Fiction
- 100 words exactly: Drabble
- 55 words exactly: Double-nickel Fiction
- 50 words exactly: Dribble
While every word in a flash fiction piece is important, often pulling double or triple-duty, in most cases it is the last line that makes a flash piece effective and memorable. Personally, I find flash stories that completely change because of the last line to be the hardest to do and the most enjoyable type of fiction. It's akin to poetry in prose form.
Let me whip up another example 55-word flash piece for you:
The Final Bully
Oh, how they loved me when I arrived. Two years later and I'm the pariah, all mistakes that were not my fault.
I can't stand this hatred.
Open the antique desk drawer, ignore the pistol.
Press the red button next to it.
It'll take ten minutes before the planet-busting bomb shockwave reaches the White House.
It took me eleven minutes to write that. Everything up to the last two lines are there to set up the story and to allow your brain to automatically fill in the empty spaces between the words. Even the title of the piece, not part of the story according to the rules but available to misdirect the reader, can be utilized to give the final line some additional impact. The concept works today because suicides are all over the news and the toxic political atmosphere during this election cycle. This story wouldn't be as effective if I wrote it back in 1977. It relies on the reader to bring along the news of the time into the reading experience.
The last line spins the story from where most readers expect the plot to go towards something completely different. It turns out that the final bully is an insane politician with science-fiction weaponry at their disposal. Note there is no actual clue if the president is male, female, non-binary, or even a lizard person. It is a far future event, unless we've invented planet-busting bombs and are hiding them in Montana. It brings along the rhetoric about presidential temperament from this year to add more background to the story without writing the words.
By making the reader think one thing and then adding a twist, the tale tends to go from a vignette towards a full story. Those last words gives a true ending. I personally find that the shorter the word count, the more important the twist is for my writing. It is also the thing that readers remember long after they've closed the book or surfed elsewhere on the Internet.