Flash Fiction – A Primer

(Released under a CC-BY-SA license)

Flash in a Flash

Flash fiction is a form of storytelling in a very short amount of space.

Ta-da! Now you’re ready to go!

Okay, maybe not:

Structure, or Lack Thereof

Structure is a blessing and a curse. It can help you stick to word limits, or force your way out of them. If you’re trying to tell a traditional three-act story it can often help to pare your structure down to the bare minimum.

Three-act Storytelling

It’s darn hard to tell a story with a typical beginning, middle, and end in 1,000 words or less, but it can be done!

In my view, the easiest way to conceive this is that a three-act flash story answers four questions in order:

1) What conflict does your protagonist want to resolve?

2) What does your protagonist do about it?

3) What happens as a result?

4) What is the resolution?

If you answer each of these in under 250 words, you’ve got a 1,000-word story.

Laurel Amberdine’s “Airship Hope” is a good example. In fact, it’s even more condensed, with Numbers Three and Four smooshed into one question and answered in a single sentence right at the end of the story! But all four questions are there, nonetheless.

You can also get away, many times, with just implying some of the questions. By telling part of a story, you can show that there’s a world beyond the page, and engage your readers by letting them figure out what happens next.

Three-act storytelling isn’t the only traditional narrative structure in town, either. Kawabata Yasunari wrote a series of “palm of the hand” stories, which tend to follow the Japanese model of kishoutenketsu. Noh plays follow a contrasting three-part structure called Jo-ha-kyuu.

Non-Narrative Stories

With flash, it’s also possible to tell an effective story by breaking out of traditional narrative conventions altogether. Tell a story as a list of bullet points, as a series of tweets, as a set of GPS instructions. What’s crucial, though, is that you still need to tell a story, not just show off a clever list of things.

For example, consider Alex Acks’s “List of Items in Leather Valise found on Welby Crescent.

Even though all we get is a list of items found in a valise, it’s possible to figure out the story behind those items.

Copying from Patterns

Another flash shortcut is to look for patterns in nature or other kinds of art, and fit your story into them. Patterns are literally everywhere, so they can give you a boost if you’re stuck.

This technique works best when the pattern you choose actually relates to the story you’re telling.

A good example is Takamichi Okubo’s “Shinbu Unit 99,” the form of which mimics a haiku: five paragraphs, then seven paragraphs, then five paragraphs. Eleanor R. Wood’s “Fibonacci” uses the mathematical sequence of the same name.

Description and Detail

In flash, you can’t spend twenty pages describing the origins and history of a dress (Sorry, Robert Jordan!), but you can say it was eggshell yellow, ankle-length, and tented. (Although, come to think of it, “describing the origins and history of a dress” sounds like a pretty good non-narrative flash fiction story…)

On the other hand, you probably don’t want to write a story that features talking heads in a white room.

Gustav Flaubert supposedly said, “Three details are enough to fix a strong picture in the reader’s mind—if they are the right details.”

But how do you find the “right” details? By focusing on your viewpoint character (if there is one) or the person central to your story. What are the details that are most important to this character? What do they notice, and why? The right details will not just describe your setting, they’ll tell your reader about your character.

Three Signs of Ineffective Flash

In his management book Three Signs of a Miserable Job, Patrick Lencioni describes how anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurability can be warning signs for miserable employees. Oddly enough, they can also make a pretty good benchmark of whether or not a piece of flash fiction is working.

A story evokes some sort of feeling in the reader (horror, wonder, love, misery) by introducing us to a person (or people) who are doing something (or things).

Anonymity

In management, employees hate being unrecognized for their work. In fiction, it’s the reader who’s affected by anonymity.

A story where the viewpoint character is referred to throughout as “he” or “she” or “they” risks killing a reader’s interest, because it’s harder to relate to a shadowy everyperson. Even if you give us no more information about your character than a name, that’s worlds better than referring to them as just a pronoun throughout.

Names can carry a surprising amount of implied information, and as humans our brains like to glom onto detail. Even in totally fantastical or science fictional settings, they help make your character seem more real, less of a cipher.

Irrelevance

This one is fairly self-explanatory. Nobody wants to be irrelevant!

In writing flash, if it’s not important to your story, plot, character, etcetera, why are you including it? This is especially important to remember in flash fiction, where you don’t have the space to go on digressions, no matter how interesting.

This doesn’t mean don’t worldbuild. It means limit your focus to elements of worldbuilding that are directly relevant to the story you’re telling right now.

Immeasurability

In the management world, this refers to how employees need to know they’re making progress toward some kind of goal.

In flash, effective stories tend to show a character making progress toward their goal(s). Or they could do the opposite: show them not making progress and how that affects them.

Some kind of plot arc or character arc usually makes for a more engaging story than four pages of nothing happening.

Wrap-up

To summarize, an effective piece of flash tells a story about a specific person (or persons!) who have specific goals, and do something to try and make those goals happen.

Of course (as with the famous advice from Vonnegut about storytelling), any of these can be deliberately broken to good effect.

Happy writing! 🙂

Further Reading

Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles, Ends

Randall Brown, A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction

David Gaffney, “Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction,” The Guardian


Have you tried writing flash fiction? Do you have questions about the format, or advice to share with others? Join the conversation on our forum to chat more about this subject with other speculative artists!

Stewart C. Baker

Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer and poet, and the editor-in-chief of sub-Q Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and currently resides in Oregon with his family­­—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.