Make a Long Story Short: Flash Fiction as a Writing Tool

There is much to be said for sitting down with a huge book and savoring it for days or weeks on end. I enjoy meeting a cast of interesting characters, exploring the world and setting, and marveling in the myriad, intricate storylines and subplots the author weaves together into a grand tapestry. I’m constantly in awe of authors who can sit down and craft such massive and complex stories in compelling ways.

But sometimes, a big ‘ol book isn’t what I’m in the mood for. Often I will see a three-inch-thick book on the shelf and think, “I’m not that hungry.” I mean, I love Thanksgiving dinner, but sometimes I just want a snack, you know?

That’s one reason I’ve always loved short stories. I love the immediacy, the urgency, and the knowledge that once I’ve begun reading, it will only be a few pages until it’s all over with. Get in and get out, because the clock is ticking.

Like most authors, I have dreams of one day penning a full-length novel. But when I sit down to write, short stories are what come out of me. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe and Philip K. Dick. Maybe it’s because I’m not super patient and the thought of writing a hundred-thousand-word story gives me stress hives. Either way, it seems that for now, my stories of choice are short.

Enter flash fiction.

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Matt Williams provided a great overview of flash fiction yesterday. Flash fiction is usually defined as any story under a thousand words (or roughly four pages), usually focusing on a single moment or character, with a powerful ending that stays with the reader. Horror and science fiction lend themselves quite naturally to flash fiction, but any genre can work. And considering the many subcategories within flash fiction, including various forms of “microfiction,” readers and writers both can enjoy a wide range of possibilities. In fact, one could make the case that mankind’s earliest stories were flash fiction. Aesop’s fables and the parables of Jesus could even fall into this category—short, powerful stories with a single point designed to leave a lasting impact on the reader.

It’s possible to say a lot with only a few words. Here, for example, is a story I wrote entitled “No Vacancy.”

The car pulls up outside room eight.

My client’s husband and his mysterious lover have finally arrived.

Focus.

Click.

He helps her out.

Click.

He fumbles with the room key.

Click.

They look around quickly, then kiss.

I zoom in.

Clickclickclick.

Wait.

She is wearing an emerald pendant—the one I gave her for our anniversary.

We have a setting, a protagonist, and a plot that ends with a resolution with a twist. One little vignette, one moment in time, one satisfying story, all in only fifty-five words. Indeed, a primary allure of flash fiction is that you can really pack a punch with only a few sentences. Consider the story “Broken,” written by my friend Mercedes Yardley, reprinted here with her permission:

“The dried twigs cracking under her feet broke exactly like the small bones of children. She wished she didn’t know that.”

BOOM. Now that’s what I’m talking about. In only two short sentences, we are given a scene to meditate on, one filled with beauty, darkness, and pathos, ending with a gut punch.

Or consider one of the most famous micro stories—only six words long—often attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

That chill that ran up your spine just now? That’s called flash fiction.

Flash fiction can be a powerful tool to help you focus on the most important elements of a story, a character, or a scene. If you’re having trouble cracking one or more of these nuts in your current work in progress, try to write a flash fiction version of it. Similarly, flash fiction can be a marvelous exercise to break writer’s block and shake up your writing routine. I have often found my creative juices restored to overflowing by attempting a flash fiction story in a genre I don’t normally read or write. Granted, many of them probably aren’t worth reprinting here, but the process has been invaluable to me because it gets me up and moving forward.

If you’d like to try your hand at flash fiction, here are some helpful tips I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. Keep it simple. Like, really simple. You don’t have any room to hide in a flash fiction story, and real estate is expensive. Eliminate most filler words, adverbs, and lengthy descriptions. Give us only the most important details. We’ll fill in the blanks.
  2. Think Big, Write Small. Flash fiction doesn’t have room to explore giant plot lines. It can—and should—explore giant ideas, but pare them down to their bare bones. Your reader shouldn’t have to go back and read your story again just to figure out what the heck you were trying to say.
  3. Start in the middle. You’re not writing Lord of the Rings This isn’t the time nor place for lengthy prologues, backstories, and world building. Flash fiction is like driving past a scene on the highway. You only get a few moments, and then it’s gone. Figure out when the most important thing happens in your story occurs, and start telling your story about thirty seconds before then.
  4. Focus on one character. Maybe two, if there’s a conversation happening. But you don’t have time to introduce us to the entire Council of Elrond. First person POV works great for flash fiction, as does third person limited.
  5. What’s happening? As with all stories, something has to happen. It’s bad enough if your reader gets bored with your hundred-thousand-word novel; it’s unforgivable if you bore them in one thousand words. Your character needs to change, grow, or learn something they didn’t know four pages earlier.
  6. Don’t Spoil the Title. Your story’s title should give a clue as to what will follow, but don’t give away the whole plot. Keep your title spoiler-free.
  7. Aim for the ending. The final E major chord of Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is arguably the strongest ending of any pop album ever. It comes after a forty-piece orchestra has concluded a largely atonal and frenetic journey from the lowest register on their instruments to the highest register, leading to one inevitable, perfect moment. The chord crashes down upon us, and echoes for the next forty-three seconds, resonating upon itself before finally releasing the listener. That’s the sort of ending a great flash fiction story should have. Powerful. Inevitable. Lasting. Think of the structure of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which all leads to the immortal final line. It couldn’t possibly end any other way, and you wouldn’t trade your new-found shivers for anything.

So, to make a long story short (see what I did there?), whether you dabble in flash fiction only as a hobby, or as a way to think through and improve your larger work, or whether you seek to write flash fiction as its own art form, the most important thing to remember is to have fun with it. My guess is that once you try it, you’ll get hooked. I did.

Oh, and keep it short, okay?
_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

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