Like a lightning strike, flash fiction stories can be over in an instant—radically altering the terrain of the reader’s imagination. These bite-sized stories take a lot of style, skill, and effective word choice to pull off. Many writers try to conquer the flash fiction form in their writing careers, but the short-short story requires lots of planning and editing, so if you’re not sure how to write flash fiction stories, you’re in the right place.
What is flash fiction, and how do you write it? In short, it’s a story that delivers a complete narrative, with plot, characters, and setting, in fewer than 1,500 words. As such, the form relies on an efficient use of language and storytelling, without inhibiting the story’s flow and impact.
Flash fiction delivers a complete narrative, with plot, characters, and setting, in fewer than 1,500 words.
Writing flash takes practice, but the form has produced some of the most interesting stories in literary canon. This article will discuss how to write flash fiction stories, explore some flash fiction examples, and end with an overview of great flash fiction magazines.
But first, let’s answer the question: What is flash fiction?
What is Flash Fiction?
The short definition of flash fiction is any fictional story that’s under 1,500 words long. Some journals may have a different definition of flash fiction length, but most accept 1,500 words as the standard maximum word count.
What is flash fiction? Any fictional story that’s under 1,500 words long.
The form can be further subdivided based on different flash fiction word counts.
Flash Fiction Word Count
Like all definitions in literature, these aren’t strict rules, but guidelines generally followed by publishers and literary journals.
|Flash form||Flash fiction word count|
|The Six Word Story||6 words|
|Minisaga (also known as dribble)||<50 words|
|Microfiction (also known as drabble)||<100 words|
|Sudden fiction||<750 words|
|Flash fiction||<1,500 words|
What is flash fiction, besides a bare-bones short story? Let’s examine a flash poetics of flash fiction stories.
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A Flash Poetics of Flash Fiction Stories
Flash fiction must accomplish the same as fiction does: namely, a complete story with well-developed characters, a finished plot, and complex themes. The story must feel finished in under 1,500 words.
Flash fiction stories must feel finished in under 1,500 words.
Despite its brevity, flash still needs complexity. If the reader finishes the story without giving it further thought, then the story has not engaged the reader enough. The length should not inhibit the story’s value.
So, how does flash manage to be brief yet complex? Let’s explore the ways that flash minces words, with flash fiction examples to follow.
Flash Fiction Examples and Techniques
All great flash fiction stories use the following techniques. Before we look at how to write flash fiction, familiarize yourself with these techniques, as it will make your drafts much easier to write and edit.
Show, Don’t Tell
Show, don’t tell is a rule that tells writers to transmit an experience through imagery and description, rather than to state an experience plainly to the reader. It can be summarized best by this Anton Chekhov quote: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Flash fiction example: Things I’m Holding For You by Kayleigh Shoen. Rather than state “my date was abusive,” the narrator builds a character profile through his many blunders. This results in a damning portrait of a man burdened by his own toxic masculinity, while also saying something about the narrator as well: why does she hold onto these things, despite all-but-admitting he’s a terrible person?
Writing Scene vs. Summary
In fiction writing, we classify a passage of text as being either scene or summary. A scene is a close look at an important event in the story, whereas a summary glosses over the details while presenting the most important information. In flash writing, there is generally very little summary, and there should be only one or two scenes.
Flash fiction example: As the North Wind Howled by Yu Hua. There are only two scenes: when the narrator’s door is kicked down, and when they arrive at their friend’s house. Each scene forces the narrator to make certain decisions and observations, which builds the story’s mood and characterization.
The language of flash fiction is sharp, economic, and to-the-point. Flash writers are often ruthless editors, truncating their sentences and scrapping whole paragraphs.
The language of flash fiction is sharp, economic, and to-the-point.
Flash fiction example: A Telephone Conversation by Mark Twain. Though the first few paragraphs are wordy, this story cuts down on words by formatting its telephone conversations like a play. This allows Twain to juxtapose incongruous ideas next to each other, making this a finished, humorous story.
Symbolism refers to the use of concrete objects to represent abstract concepts. Most flash fiction stories have a lot of symbolism, allowing the writer to boil a wordy idea into a symbolic object.
Flash fiction example: A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf. This prose poem advances its narrative through its corporeal symbolism. From empty hands to the heartbeat of a home, the heavy symbolism of the story helps contain its concise, hyperbolic emotion.
In Media Res
Many flash pieces start in media res, which means that it starts in the middle of the story, rather than the beginning. This roundabout way of writing the plot could help crunch down on the amount of details the story needs to be effectively told.
Flash fiction example: Everyone Cried by Lydia Davis. The story begins in the middle of its moral: all adults want to be kids, sometimes. Though there isn’t a clear plot to the story, it succinctly points out the irony and duality of adulthood.
Flash borrows a lot from the methods of poetry, especially in terms of figurative language and literary devices.
Flash fiction example: Sticks by George Saunders. This story abounds with metaphors, symbolism, and image-lead narrative. The reader experiences the story through a father’s psychosis as he communicates through the way he decorates a pole. Each image represents the father’s slow decline, communicating its ironies in short bursts of intense feeling.
Trusting the Reader
Because flash stories are so short, writers don’t have much time to set up the world of the story. As a result, writers might feel inclined to keep unnecessary description and worldbuilding in the story, cutting out important moments of characterization or dialogue instead. In truth, the best flash fiction stories trust the reader to understand what’s going on and to lean into the mystery of what they don’t know.
Flash fiction example: My Dead by Peter Orner. The narrator is a little hard to trust at first. Why would you drive with a stranger to visit a seance, especially if you have no one you want to contact? But the narrator’s passiveness becomes a lens to explore spirituality and self-destructive habits, finding something haunting in the gray, liminal spaces of existence.
How to Write Flash Fiction Stories: What to Leave Out
In longer works of fiction—novels, novellas, and even short stories—the writer must include a considerable amount of detail to make the story and its characters immersive. The short word count of flash greatly hampers the amount of details the writer can include. So, whether you’re starting from scratch or trying to pare down your word, here are some things you can leave out of your story.
Interiority refers to the inner life of your protagonist. What do they think, feel, and dream about? How do they view and react to the world? Who are they when no one is looking?
Most main characters require some level of interiority, unless they’re flat characters. Nonetheless, you don’t need too much interiority in flash. Certainly, tell us when your main character has important thoughts, reactions, or traumas: the reader wants to connect with your character, after all. But the reader doesn’t need to know every thought in the protagonist’s brain: their actions and dialogue will often suffice for this.
Related to interiority is backstory. Both interiority and backstory help explain certain aspects of your story: how certain characters think or feel, and why they think and feel those things. Where interiority shows us the inner workings of a character’s mind, backstory provides the events prior to the current story that influence a character’s decisions or current situation.
It makes sense to provide backstory in novels and memoirs. In flash fiction stories, less so. The focus should be on the main scenes of the story and the actions that the character takes: these items should either explain themselves, or provoke the reader with a certain level of intrigue. Otherwise, excess backstory will simply waste words. Don’t try to explain everything: leave some things to the reader’s imagination, and only explain when it’s essential.
Moments of Inaction
Action drives the story forward. Your characters make decisions, and those decisions yield results and further actions. When your word limit is short, stick to the nouns and verbs.
In other words, we don’t need to see your character thinking too much. We don’t need to see their morning routine, either, or what they ate for breakfast. These details help build the worlds of novels and memoirs, but in flash, stick to the action, and only embellish with detail when you have the reason (and the words) to do so.
These next three tips have to do with writing style. The passive voice occurs when the subject of a sentence receives the action of the verb, rather than does the verb. The passive voice is wordier than the active voice, and often less compelling.
Here’s an example:
Active: He scaled the mountain.
Passive: The mountain was scaled by him.
Sometimes you need the passive voice, especially if you want to highlight when certain things are done to your characters. But, when your protagonist is taking action, let your sentences also take action.
A preposition is a word that directs the action of a sentence. They’re essential components of speech, and you shouldn’t avoid them entirely. But you should avoid sentence constructions that rely on prepositions when you don’t need them.
Here’s an example:
Wordy: This is the chair of my mother.
Succinct: This is my mother’s chair.
“Of” is the preposition in this sentence, but you would do much better to add an apostrophe+s to “mother.”
An adverb is a descriptive word that modifies a verb. Often, but not always, adverbs end with the suffix -ly. Sometimes, an adverb does add necessary description and detail; however, there are plenty of verbs in the English lexicon, and you will often do better to use one strong verb than a weak verb with an adverb.
Wordy: The lion roared deeply and loudly.
Succinct: The lion bellowed.
Wordy: The road ran haphazardly around the hills.
Succinct: The road zigzagged around the hills.
Verbs provide the actions of sentences, so using strong, descriptive verbs will better illustrate your story in fewer words.
How to Write Flash Fiction Stories: 4 Approaches
In short, flash fiction has all the elements of longer stories, but with less “fluff.” So, the challenge of writing flash lies in crafting a complete story in under 1,500 words. How should you approach writing flash? Consider the following four approaches.
1. How to Write Flash Fiction: Ruthless Editing
Some writers might try starting their flash piece as a normal story, then cutting the words down. This is a common approach to writing flash, especially if your story isn’t far away from the 1,500 word mark. If you think you can cut a story down after writing it, then kill your darlings—and have fun with it!
2. How to Write Flash Fiction: Plot First
Flash stories require bones before you can put meat on them, so start with the story’s plot. With a plot-first approach, you start by writing only the details of the story, without any description or figurative language. Then, once the plot is written, you fill it with details until you hit the 1,500 word mark. This “fill in the blanks” approach allows you to keep the story to its most important details while still being complete.
3. How to Write Flash Fiction: Start with Poetry
Writing fiction from poetry? It’s more likely than you think. Many literary critics consider flash fiction stories to border the lines between prose and poetry, since it uses many poetic devices to convey plot. If you’re a poet as well as a fiction writer, consider writing your story’s plot in verse, then expanding that verse into a prose-poem or prose.
4. How to Write Flash Fiction: End with a Bang
For a flash story to feel “complete,” it needs to “end with a bang.” The final line(s) of the story must leave the reader thinking long after the story ends.
The end of a flash fiction story must surprise the reader in some way. Flash often offers a resolution to the story that inverts themes, uncovers ironies, or offers unexpected dualities. Take the aforementioned story Sticks by George Saunders, one of the strongest flash fiction examples out there. The final line of the story presents the irony in the father’s pole ritual, since it is an unanswered cry for help.
The end of a flash fiction story must surprise the reader.
Thinking about the ending, first, isn’t a conventional way to approach storytelling, but may work for this genre. Try it, and see what you write!
How to Publish Flash Fiction
Are you ready to put your flash fiction stories to print? We’ve recently reviewed the best journals to submit fiction to, and some of these journals are also excellent publishers of flash! Take a look at the submissions requirements for the following journals which publish or specialize in flash.
- Smokelong Quarterly
- The Raleigh Review
- Fireside Magazine
- The New Yorker
- Fifty Word Stories
Finally, NYC Midnight often runs flash writing contests that are both fun to compete in and offer great feedback and community.
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Want to learn the finer details of how to write flash fiction stories? Take a look at our upcoming flash fiction courses with instructor Barbara Henning.