Books Anne has written or has a chapter in.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Writing Flash Fiction, Part 2

Strategies for writing flash fiction

If you Google “flash fiction, how to write,” you will get more returns than you can reasonably read and digest in a year, or possibly a lifetime. When I was putting my workshop together, I had my own list of strategies, and after I’d spent some time skimming through all the good advice on the Internet, I started to see patterns and repeats. So, to save you some time and trouble, here’s a distillation of the helpful advice on writing good flash fiction.

  Remember what I said about seating your story into a larger context of meaning? It helps to have an idea of what your story is about, not just what literally happens. I’m not talking about the plot – what I’m referring to is the reader’s take-away.

  That takeaway usually resides as a smaller idea embedded in a larger one. Postcard fiction deals with one event or time period in a character's life, a pivotal moment and its outcome. The keyword here is pivotal. For example, to write about the disintegration of a complex, lifelong relationship, take the triggering event – the discovery of infidelity – and telescope it down to a single event such as finding a strange set of keys in the pocket of your spouse’s jacket while you’re being nice and hanging it up for him or her.

  The opening is critical. You don't have two pages to explain the setting or essential backstory and introduce the cast of characters. At best you have a paragraph and a half.  This is where your inventiveness is put to the test. A few broad strokes, a handful of striking details, and you’re off and running.

  Because you don’t have space for a typical preamble, you’d best start in the middle of the action. What do you see when you crack the story open?   Find a powerful image to kick things off. Paint a scene or a face in vivid color or emotion. A child is running flat-out down a dirt road…is it from fear, anger, exhilaration, panic? A woman sits at an outdoor café in Paris savoring the taste and scent of the fine wine invading her palate as she picks out individual sounds of the city street and interacts with the waiter – only at the end do we discover she’s gone blind. Hone those descriptive urges down to the bare bone, giving the reader just enough to fill in the larger fatty context as you go along.

  Keep the number of characters down to a bare minimum. This should be obvious. If you’ve got more than two or three people talking, you’re asking for trouble. Stick to a main character, someone he or she interacts with to move the story to its inevitable (and possibly unexpected) conclusion, and just allude to others as necessary.

  A little mystery goes a long way. I’ve seen this advice over and over, and I think it’s true. Your reader may feel lost at the beginning, but that's fine. If you’ve crafted that handful of details you started out with carefully and built on them judiciously, readers will be compelled to carry on to the end. A word to the wise: don’t disappoint your faithful reader by failing to pay off those expectations.  

  Let’s go back to what I said about alluding. Making reference to commonly known events or places or people is the quick way to get your exposition out there – it’s what I call “express exposition.” Referring to Howl as the latest rage amongst the literati puts you in the 1950s and probably San Francisco.  

  Pulling things to a conclusion is likely going to be the most chewed over paragraph in your story. You don’t have to be an O’Henry to pack some punch at the end of the tale. Flash fiction is a great vehicle for the surprise ending or abrupt shift in POV because you don't have enough time to create the buildup that longform fiction allows. Flash fiction is streamlined – you’re at the conclusion almost before you know it. You may or may not want the reader to see the depends on the dynamics of the tale. You can create a delicious sense of dread if you don’t mind the reader guessing what’s coming. On the other hand, a sharp unexpected turnaround at the end can make readers want to reread the story to savor the clever (and surreptitious) way in which the ending is the perfect payoff to the events of the story. It may even reveal a new take on some greater truth.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some workshop activities you can try at home without hurting yourself.


  1. Wonderful articles, Anne, and timely for me. I'm just putting final touches on a flash fiction story (with 4 endings to pick from, what fun!) for my upcoming newsletter. I've only written one other flash fiction piece, so this was fun and new.

  2. Hey Keith, glad you're getting something out of this posting. I've taught this seminar a couple of times, and people seem to find it useful.