I enjoy reading flash fiction. I love writing it even more.
Flash fiction is generally any story that comes in under a thousand words — some definitions or marketplaces will allow you up to fifteen hundred. Anything over that and you’re into short story territory.
There’s no lower limit to flash fiction, but under three hundred words, you’re in the realms of micro-fiction.
So, how do we get a complete and entertaining story into such a tiny word count?
Sometimes, I find flash stories flow easily and a spark can come from anywhere. Other times, I have to work harder to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve found it can help if I make a framework for myself by creating a character and motivations and see what happens.
When I’m stuck, I sometimes use the following exercise. I’m not claiming the credit for this. I’ve cobbled it together out of workshops I’ve attended and websites I’ve followed over the years. It’s writing advice that I’ve distilled into a method that works for me when inspiration runs dry.
It’s not the only way to create short fiction, but it’s fun to try. Maybe it can help you create some new fiction too.
We’re going to look at how to create a piece of writing under seven hundred and fifty words long from scratch. Word-count limits are your friend.
I’ll read any type of flash fiction, but in writing it, I find it much more satisfying to create a complete story. This means a beginning, a middle and an end.
There are four things we’re going to include in this five-step process. Try them out first to see if they work for you, then next time around bend or break these ‘rules’ as you please.
“The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” — Captain Hector Barbossa
- There will be a main character but minimal, if any, secondary characters.
2. Conflict needs to exist to drive the story.
3. Something needs to change between the opening and the closing lines — usually either your character or their situation, or a realisation or a twist for the reader.
4. Resolution. It may not go your character’s way, but there should be a definite close to the story.
And, for bonus points, it’s even better if your character resolves the story by their own agency, rather than outside forces saving the day.
These are all traditional storytelling elements that create a solid structure for any length of tale. If you can use the above, you’re on your way to having a satisfying, complete story.
So, where to start? Here’s the five-step process.
- Get a notebook and spend a few minutes jotting down characters, along with descriptors.
Any character and any description. Mix and match is a great approach here, so go wild and create at least five. A debt-ridden student, lonely astronaut, desperate dungeon master… if you get stuck, here are some more ideas.
Pick the character that appeals to you the most from your list. This will be your main viewpoint character.
I’m going to use my flash fiction piece Death is a Salesman to demonstrate the process.
My character is an overburdened wife.
2. Back to your notebook again. Now, jot down several wants or needs.
Think about what you’d really like right now. Win the lottery, take a walk without social distancing, have someone else do the chores, create world peace.
Or something outside usual life experience, perhaps. Landing on the moon, crossing a border to safety, preventing a bomb from going off, etc
Here is author Kristen Keiffer discussing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs if you want to dive deeper.
My character is worried about the apocalypse and wants to prepare.
Overburdened wife wants a bunker in her beloved woods in case an apocalypse hits.
Mix and match your characters and wants until you have one that resonates with you. This will be your main character and their ‘want’.
3. Next, from the above guidelines, we need to add some conflict to drive our story along.
How do we add conflict? The character wants something, but something else is standing in their way. This could be another person, a force of nature, an animal, anything that prevents them from getting what they want.
It could be a life-threatening issue — a tsunami is about to overwhelm their town. It could be something seemingly small like a blocked sink that means they can’t clean their kitchen. Even a minor problem can create wonderful stories. And they don’t have to remain small. It’s all about creating a starting point and letting your imagination rip.
Go back to your notebook and create some obstacles or problems that will get in the way of your character’s greatest want. Pick the one that appeals the most and put them together in a sentence so you can see what you’ve got.
Yup, one sentence. No more. Think of it as the tag line from a movie or a book.
Overburdened wife wants a bunker in her beloved woods in case an apocalypse hits, but her husband won’t let her.
Bit of a run-on sentence but it has the elements of character, problem and conflict that I want. How’s yours coming along?
4. Using what you’ve created, write the first paragraph or two.
Your goals are to introduce your character, set the scene, and introduce their problem in less than one hundred words. Sounds like a lot but have faith, I know you can do it.
Here are my first two paragraphs. I used the first-person point of view as I found it easier to get into the character's voice.
Walt’s never around when I need him. Radio says the Third War’s coming. Walt and I’ve already discussed a bunker. He’d got plans drawn up for the backyard. After twenty-five years, you’d think he’d give me a say.
Our woods down the valley, that’s where I want it dug. Near the river, and filled with cottontail burrows and deer roamin’ wild.
I have my main character, her ‘want’ and the conflict provided by her obstreperous husband. He won’t let her have her way, but added into that is the fact this appears that conflict is a long-standing issue in their marriage.
I’ve also introduced the setting where most of the story takes place, the woods.
It comes to sixty-one words although, as I’ve written the piece in her voice, I’ve managed to use a lot of contractions like ‘he’d’ and ‘I’ve’. Great! That’s more word count for later.
Remember though, this is my final edited version. The original first draft was around a hundred words and nowhere near as concise.
5. Let your imagination go wild
It’s time to write the main part of your story and discover the end. If you have an end in mind that’s great, but it’s not necessary. Free write on from your beginning and see what happens. Use around five hundred words for your middle and save around one hundred and fifty for your end.
You may not end up spreading your word count out this way, but for now? You’re on a word budget, remember.
If you get stuck, refer back to your tagline sentence. This is where Guideline 3 also comes in handy: Something needs to change between the opening and the closing lines — usually either your character or their situation or a realisation or a twist for the reader.
In my story, Nancy discovers a dark secret about her husband that changes her whole take on her marriage and, I’d like to think, makes the ending fairly inevitable for these two characters.
Think about your character and what might change for them between the beginning and the end of your story. Make it happen.
When you think you’re done, set it aside for a day or two if you can. Come back with fresh eyes and see what you’ve got. If you’re way over seven hundred and fifty words, you have some editing to do. Be brutal. Look at every word choice and see how you can make each sentence work harder to drive the story towards the conclusion.
If you’re under the word count, you have a choice. Stick with what you have or flesh it out.
But don’t add things in just for the sake of it. If you have five hundred words of awesomeness don’t spoil it with a bad case of bloat.
Giving yourself a word count limit might be a pain in the butt BUT it’s worth sticking to. It will make you hone to the bone and consider every word choice.
Once you’ve edited your piece try to set it aside again for a day or so if you can. It’s good to let a story breath and come back to it with fresh eyes to make any improvements or adjustments.
In Death is a Salesman, I discovered my character had extra motivation for not liking her husband so I expanded from my original 600 words to 740 so I could flesh that out more.
I didn’t plot it out but free wrote into it, although it took a darker turn than I expected. It took a few hours spread over several days to get it how I wanted it, but I’m pretty happy with the ending.
- Want/ Need
- Create your opening paragraph or two incorporating the above
- Let your imagination run wild to the end.
I hope you’ll let me know how the exercise goes for you. If you decide to post your creation anywhere online, I’d love it if you put a response below and link to it so I can have a read.
Once you’re done, repeat the exercise and try it with another tagline.
Here’s what happened in my tale of Nancy and Walt