Short stories can be several thousand words long, but an even shorter form of prose literature is flash fiction. This style of writing uses only a few hundred words, often no more than 500, to tell a concise but impactful story.
Knowing how to write short stories is useful if you also want to write flash fiction, but this shorter style is a separate challenge. With only a few hundred words to use, writers have to be more disciplined and restrained with what to include in the story. Read on to find out how to write flash fiction and the key components to focus on.
Features of flash fiction to include
As a starting point, it’s important to understand the key characteristics of flash fiction. Being aware of these means you can incorporate them into your own story.
Start in medias res
Beginning your flash fiction story in medias res (in the middle of the action) is the best way to cut out a slow build-up that might require a few hundred words.
By cutting to the chase, you ensure that the reader is immediately engaged with the story and allow the narrative to flow quickly from the very beginning.
Sticking with only one or two characters is a useful way to keep your flash fiction story focused and, ultimately, short. You may be able to include more in some cases, but the plot shouldn’t require more than three or four.
Flash fiction almost always uses just one scene to tell its story. Any more than that and it can be difficult to limit the word count.
Often, flash fiction requires more than simple surface-level plots to be impactful. Adding layers of symbolism makes the story much more meaningful to the reader and provides a much more engaging experience.
What to leave out of your flash fiction story
Because of their short length, flash fiction stories require writers to leave out a lot of details that they might otherwise have included in a longer story.
Don’t waste any words establishing your characters’ backstories unless it’s absolutely vital to your story.
If you’re writing in the first person, it can be tempting to dwell too long on your narrator’s thoughts and reactions to events. But this should be avoided. The narrative has to keep moving forward, otherwise their musings will slow down the story and require too many words.
While flash fiction stories often build up towards a dramatic conclusion, they don’t have time to be slow about it. Every detail needs to be revealed quickly and deftly throughout the beginning and middle sections, often with no space for the reader to dwell on one before getting to the other.
The best way to drive a story forward is by using active voice, rather than passive. Passive voice is less direct than active, as it is often wordier and creates a separation between the protagonist and their actions.
When every word counts more than in longer stories, there are some that are better to cut than others. Adverbs are a good example.
Some writers are adamant that adverbs should rarely be used in literature whereas others are more liberal with their usage of these words. But whichever side of the argument you stand on, in flash fiction especially it’s good practice to keep them out.
Cutting out adverbs is a handy way to reduce your word count and keep your narrative more succinct. For example, compare these two sentences:
With adverbs: The teacher walked awkwardly down the corridor and shouted loudly and angrily at the children.
Without adverbs: The teacher staggered down the corridor and bellowed at the children.
Approaches to writing flash fiction and deciding where to start
Even if you are confident of what elements you should and shouldn’t include in your flash fiction story, knowing how to start writing it can be the biggest challenge. Here are a few helpful approaches you can try:
1. Decide on the twist and work backwards
Flash fiction is often characterised by its climactic plot twists. If you have a good idea for a twist ending, that’s all you need to start planning your own story.
Once you’ve got the ending, you can work backwards. How does the action reach that climactic situation? What choices does your protagonist have to make to get there? What clues can you throw in as foreshadowing for that conclusion?
2. Create a unique character
Like any story, characters are just as if not more important than the actual plot. Although flash fiction often focuses on what happens, sometimes it’s easy to start by creating your protagonist so you can then springboard into a plot that makes sense for them.
Try to design a unique character. Imagine their backstory, their behaviour and quirks, and their relationships with others. What pivotal moment in their life could be most interesting to write about?
Maybe there was a key moment in their childhood that impacted their outlook on life. It could be a scene in which they reinterpret their relationship with another character. Or perhaps a simple change in their mundane daily routine causes a change of perspective to something new to them.
3. Choose your setting
As an alternative to deciding on the twist or character first, you could start with the setting. Picture an interesting location or time period that could be explored within a few hundred words, or at least one that can be used as a catalyst for a unique plot.
4. Consider using poetry as inspiration
Because of its short form, some people consider flash fiction to be the prose equivalent of poetry. As such, you could use an existing poem as inspiration. Or, if you had an idea for a poem which you’ve never had a chance to write, you could try and adapt it into a piece of flash fiction.
For example, one of the characteristics of poetry is how it often explores a single core theme, using language tools to create meaning. In some cases, you may find it works better to instead use prose to examine your idea.
If you’re unsure whether your idea is best suited for a poem or flash fiction, make sure you know the difference between prose and verse so that you’re aware of the advantages and limitations of both styles.
Join our mailing list
Subscribe to our mailing list to stay up to date with our latest news and blog updates.