Three years ago when I began dabbling in flash fiction, I never imagined this was something I’d enjoy doing so much! It started off as a whim, grew into a curious exploration, developed further into a writing exercise and is now a full-fledged passion.
Presumptuous as it may be, I’ve taken the liberty of putting together a few tips for writing flash fiction or micro fiction, based on my own experience.
First things first. Before we plunge into the tips and tricks of the trade, here’s a basic question.
What is Flash Fiction?
The exact definition may vary but short fiction which tells a complete story in under 500 words is what qualifies as flash fiction. Ever since this model took off and more writers started trying their hand at it, we’ve had variations on the number. So, you now find 100-word pieces, 200-word fiction and even 33-word micro fiction written on the web.
In the tips below, I’ll link to flash fiction examples from my attempts. Click through, read each of the pieces (don’t worry, they’re all short ) and be sure to ask any questions you may have in the comments. I’d be happy to answer them.
1. Start with a prompt or a theme
My earliest attempts at this genre (and my latest one) have all revolved around a prompt from a good writing site. Yes, you know I’m going to mention Yeah Write here. Why a prompt? How does it help?
When I began writing fiction, I used to stalk the grids on yeah write and read all the other pieces by the other writers. How this helped was that I could see how a single prompt or theme generated 15 or 20 different perspectives! It was incredible. So I began to do the same thing.
Take a prompt. Any phrase. For instance: ‘Into the wild’.
Now, close your eyes. What are you seeing?
- You may be in an actual jungle, flanked by green and brown and you feel a slight shiver at the unknown.
- You may be walking into the middle of a duel in the wild west! What are you going to do? Watch or stop it?
- You find yourself rafting down the rapids and you feel a surge of panic as the wild waves rise to meet you.
I’ve just conjured 3 scenarios from one phrase. That’s how ideas grow. Let them lead the way. Take the one that appeals to you and build the story around it.
For example, what does the word ‘terminal’ mean to you? Write down 3 variants and then click on the story linked below.
Read- Terminal: Micro Fiction
2. Title first or story first?
During the A to Z Challenge in 2015 and 2017, I chose to go with flash fiction on this blog tailored to each letter of the alphabet. Since I had a theme each year, it was fairly easy to pick out the titles. Writing down the letters from A to Z on a sheet and then writing out words or phrases against them helped me with the titles.
Sometimes, though, you get the idea for a story first and then get to decide what you’d like to title it. In the piece I linked below, that’s what happened. I came up with the idea of a love story and put a different twist on it. Once I’d written it, I was wondering what I could title it. Re-reading it gave me the hint.
So which is better?
The answer: Both.
I’m not kidding. It really does depend on each piece you write. My suggestion is for you to try out both methods and see which makes it easier for you. The trick is not to force it but to allow it to happen.
3. Use a word counter
This may be the best thing ever for writing flash fiction, folks! My secret? I write directly in the word counter so that it shows me how much I tend to ramble when I write micro fiction. The one I love is WordCounter.Net
Right down to character count and spell check, this tool is a boon. A word of caution, though. Don’t be so caught up in the word count that you lose sight of the writing process. Write as you would write anyway. Then, feed it into the word counter and observe critically to see where you can manage to bring down the number.
For instance, this 33-word piece below was originally 100 words in length. It’s a trial and error concept, really. Keep writing daily, even if you don’t publish it on your blog.
Read: The rogue pea
4. Start in the middle of the action
Flash fiction does not allow too much room for setting a scene, descriptive phrasing, building up the climax and ending with a neatly wrapped up conclusion. The whole challenge lies in how you dive straight into the heart of the story.
How you can work here is start off by writing a piece in the regular way. Set the scene, work your way up to the action. Now, step back and remove the setting. See if the story makes sense. Remember, the context has to be understood even by people who don’t have a background to draw from.
A good way to do this is use dialogue as I have done below in both pieces.The tone of the piece is set. Think of it as a scene in a movie. You are now curious to know who the speakers are. What caused them to speak this way? Who are the other characters? What’s the situation?
Arousing curiosity is the equivalent of a good ‘hook’ in your first paragraph in a traditional longer piece. Work on your hook and your readers will follow it through till the end.
Read: Anything you want
5. Find your voice
I can’t emphasise this enough. There are plenty of flash fiction writers out there. What will help you stand out is your voice. I’ve found that when I either write humour or something poignant, these two voices work the best for my micro fiction.
Decide before you write the piece on which direction you want the story to flow. Do you want to make the reader giggle? Scare them maybe? Perhaps make them think? Or use drama to help them relive the scene?
The best part is you can do all of the above if you try well. Don’t imitate other writers. That always falls flat. Write in the style you know and feel most comfortable exploring. A good piece isn’t about using fancy words. It’s about using the right ones.
Read: Sticks and Stones
6. Cut out words which add no value
This may be the most favourite part of writing flash fiction, especially if you are an editor. Cough I love snipping, cutting and pruning a piece. As a reader, I want clarity first when I read any article or story. Does the writer convey the idea without rambling, moving around the central point and come to the heart of the piece? (There’s a place for rambling blog posts, by the way, just not in micro fiction).
What are words which have no value? I know most people would say adverbs, but that isn’t always true. An adverb can actually help the action in a micro piece.
- Redundant words: Have you used two words that convey the same thing? Remove them.
- Repeated ideas: Have you written the same sentence in another way? Does it add any value to the piece? It not, remove them.
- Use tighter phrasing: ‘Women realised that they were now widows thanks to the war’ can be written as ‘Women transformed into widows’, as mentioned in the piece linked below.
- Try alternative words: It’s tempting to use the word ‘said’ after each piece of dialogue. Instead, use substitutes that will convey the emotion better: muttered, whispered, murmured, gasped.
7. Leave some things unsaid
The beauty of a flash fiction piece is you don’t always have to give a neatly packaged piece with all the loose ends tied up. Leave the reader wanting more. It’s a bold move, mind you. Not every reader will appreciate the concept of wondering what happened to the protagonist at the end of the piece.
But it’s a worthwhile move. Flash fiction is not meant to resolve things. It’s supposed to make you think, wonder and ponder. The open-ended nature of these pieces allow the reader freedom to draw their own conclusions.
This piece below is something people have asked me to elaborate upon, in a longer story. Maybe I will do it: key word being ‘maybe’.
8. Always pay attention to grammar
Okay, this has got to be point 1, actually. But, please, please pay attention to grammar. You cannot afford to cut out articles and important connecting words to make the word count. It doesn’t work that way.
Watch the tense. Have you started the piece in past tense? Make sure it’s past tense all the way.
Is the syntax correct in each sentence? Have you seen the change in form? If yes, correct it.
Are the sentences too long and winding? Do they affect the reader experience? Work on them.
Read: Beautiful– A flash fiction piece
9. Go for a big finish
Flash fiction has the unique advantage of what I call the ‘twist ending’. Now this isn’t always true of all flash fiction writing but it’s worked for a lot of my pieces.
If you aren’t comfortable with ‘twist/ open endings’, go with a statement that will leave a big impact on the reader. It has to be something that will evoke interest and sustain the pace of the piece.
In the piece below, interestingly, I had two endings. Read the whole piece first. Now, remove the last sentence and read it again. When I did that,the responses to the piece were so different. In the first instance, the readers sympathised with the man in the story. In the second, the readers identified with the woman better.
Why? Simple psychology. You appreciate something that you can relate to.
10. Step back and read the piece as a reader
After writing any piece of fiction, don’t jump for joy. Okay, you can, but do it after this step.
Read the story as a reader would. Imagine that you are coming upon this piece as someone who doesn’t know the background, the context or the setting of the story. Does it make sense? Do you need anything which will help you out? Does the piece strike a chord, make you want to read the writer more often?
If it works, then you’re good to go. If you have even a margin of doubt, send the draft to a friend to beta read the piece. Listen to critical feedback and work on changing what didn’t work.
Hope this has helped you think about trying your hand at flash fiction.
Have I left anything out? Ask away in the comments.
*For a very professional, detailed and excellent piece written by one of my favourite writers and editors, do read this article by Christine Hanolsy: