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Short But Sweet: What Writers Can Gain from Flash Fiction

August 1, 2014


Today, I will be discussing how, exactly, flash fiction (that is, fiction under a thousand words) can be used to improve a writer’s craft. It may be hard to imagine how such small ditties can come into play, especially when it comes to writing the titans of the book world. Rest assured, flash fiction can teach every writer something, from the short story addict to the door-stopper lovers (alright, maybe tank-stoppers) that occupy the writing world.

But first, a disclaimer.

This article is, in no way whatsoever, claiming that all writers MUST write flash fiction to be skilled! As is the case for a lot in writing, flash fiction can be a helpful tool in developing writing skill. It does not, by any means, imply that those who don’t write flash fiction are worse at their craft than writers who do. There are many ways to learn techniques of writing; this is merely one of them!

Now that’s out of the way, let’s sink some teeth into how the short prose can help writers in the long run.

Trimming the Fat

The most obvious aspect that flash fiction can help with is the skill of ‘trimming the fat’. Basically, honing sentences down to their rawest, shortest form. A writer who waffles while writing their flash fiction will quickly bump their head against the thousand-word level before the characters have even said ‘goodbye’. When writing flash fiction, one must always keep an eye on their sentences, lest they begin to grow roots and take up more real estate than what’s needed for them.

For example, let’s say I wrote the following in a story:

Cathy took a nice, long sip from her warm cappuccino. This was a very important part of her day, as she always drank a cup of cappuccino before she started on her work.

Lets say the above sentence is needed in the story — the fact that Cathy drinks cappuccino every morning will appear later in the plot. It doesn’t matter if you think this sentence would pass your personal standards or not. The point is, while I might be able to get away with such a sentence in a novel, the above example may end up soaking words that are needed later on in the story. In total, the sentence is thirty-three words — only one-thirtieth of the total flash limit, but still one-thirtieth dedicated to cappuccino.

Writing flash fiction means learning how to pinch your pennies, and condense the above sentence into something like:

Cathy sipped on her morning cappuccino before work. Every day, like clockwork.

Now it’s twelve words. I’m sure this sentence could go down even further —  perhaps you already have an idea how! — but the point is, this sentence now takes up a meagre 1.2% of the story. Much more room for more exciting stuff to happen.

When you write flash fiction, you know when to stop waffling, and start speaking. This will carry over to your main projects, where you’ll find your sentences cut to the chase, and don’t bop the reader about with cotton gloves.

Show, Don’t Tell

Oh, look who it is. It’s Mr. Leave-Me-Out-Of-A-Writing-Advice-Course-If-You-Dare, back for round two. I’m sure, by now, any writers who are reading this are already repeating ‘show, don’t tell’ in their sleep, instead of snoring. It’s a rule which isn’t just passed around; it’s waved with furor like the battle standard of the strongest army of the land. You’ll be pleased to know, then, that flash fiction also helps writers show, and not tell.

How? Simple; writers can’t afford to tell. If you’re spending one-third (or even one-half!) of the story building up your elven town, its name, its heritage, its ruler, the people within it, etcetera, then you’ll find that there’s not much room for actual story to occur in your world. In such a case, one learns to feed the reader information as the story is going, rather than telling the reader what is happening before the story starts.

Here’s an example. This is the very beginning of my flash fiction called ‘Sorry, We Missed You’:

“All I am saying,” Katashi said, leaving the tea house, “is that we cannot let it get out of hand.”

“I understand your cause for concern,” Jun said, sweeping a hand over his black ponytail, “but there is not much we can do. The Kagawa and Inaba clans are on-edge as they are, and our recent meddling in their affairs have only tarred our name. Should we continue to push them, they might declare war on us.”

“But sire,” Katashi said, catching up with Jun’s quick walking pace, “if we do nothing, we run the risk of being assaulted regardless.”

“Then we run the risk. As long as we have our samurai ready, then we can always take the stance of a defender. It is far more honourable to take a defensive stance against an enemy than to sack their own villages and–what’s this?”

Where do you think this story is located? In what setting?

If you said feudal Japan — you’re correct! If you notice, however, at no point did I stop the story to tell the reader that they’re currently walking amongst the samurai. I built that fact as I wrote the story, setting up the conflict of the world while giving the reader information as to where they are. I tried to show as much as possible within the first line — the name ‘Katashi’ hopefully sprang the image of a Japanese person to mind. The fact that he is leaving a tea house hints a little further that this is not sci-fi, but probably contemporary or historical. The second paragraph hints at a black ponytail (which comes to my mind when I think of a samurai) and speaks of clans and their warfare. Within the first two paragraphs, I’ve set up the case that these characters are in feudal Japan, without actually saying so.

You’ll also find, while writing flash fiction, that you can’t afford to stop and dwell on how a character is feeling. You need to express it with a shout, a whimper, a shake of the fist, a stamp of the foot. You learn how to implement information into the flow of the story, rather than standing in the middle of said flow and spouting off information the reader needs to know.

Beginning, Middle, End

There’s one thing about flash fiction that you must always remember. Flash fiction can never be part of a story. You cannot make a surgical incision around a specific chunk of your novel and put it up. A flash fiction has to come with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And, yes, it all has to fit within a thousand words.

This is what usually stumps people when they come to write flash fiction. How do you begin something, flesh it out, and then put it to bed, within a word count that competes with a chapter in a novel? Well, that’s exactly what writing flash fiction can teach.

You learn, for example, that beginnings need to be cut as close to their necks as possible. You can’t afford to have a beginning that lounges around and takes time to set everything up, before the good bit starts. You have to grill the beginning as much as possible, discover how much of it you actually need. Do you really need to start at the beginning of the two characters talking? Or can you start in the middle of it?

For the middle of the plot, you work out how to ‘untie the knot’ as quickly as possible. You have an envisioned beginning, and you know how it will end. Now, you have to get from A to B, and with that comes a lot of stuff you want to cram in, and a lot of things that are needed in the plot. How are you going to streamline this pile of content, turning it from a tangle of activity to a smooth transition of actions? Because if you spend words trying to get through the tangle the hard way, you might not have room to type The End.

Speaking of which, the ending is just as important. You need to guillotine this sucker, and sometimes — if you’ve been eating through your words like a fine banquet — you need to do it right now. You have a beginning which is all lean and no fat, and a middle that glides like an air current. Now, you need to bring it to a close. Should you go for an ending that terminates the conflict? Or will you allow it to blossom into something much bigger than your FF can handle, and let the reader’s imagination take it from there? Either way is a perfectly good way to end a story. You need to pick one, bring the puppy home, and then check your word count to see if you’ve broken budget.

Experimentation Galore

Do you have a character you really want to play with, but you don’t have a full-length story for them yet? Or perhaps you have a curious eye on another genre, but don’t want to invest in the time and effort of writing a larger story in case it’s not for you after all? Flash fiction is perfect for this. I’ll admit it right here; some of my works in the past has been experiments. You, the readers, have been experimented on. I’ve come across an interesting idea, a fun notion. I want to try it out, but I don’t want to risk it with big word counts on the line. So I write up a flash fiction using whatever experimentation I want to do. Those who have been reading my stories for a year or so know that I, sometimes, dip a very curious toe into the horror genre with my humour. I love it. It has taught me a lot.

And the best part? If you’re doing something like Flash Friday (if you want to try writing flash fiction, I highly suggest it!), the works you publish on your website are for free. That means you can experiment as much as you like, without having to consider the ire of someone who spent money on something that wasn’t quite thought out yet. If people don’t like it, they’ll shrug their shoulders and move on. Rarely does someone get a ranting, stinging review in the comments of their flash fiction. In fact, I can’t name one instance where I’ve seen it happen.

If you want to explore an element of writing, but feel scared of investing time and effort into a potential failure, try to stuff it into a flash. It might just do the trick.

You Can Actually Finish Something For Once

And goodness, what fun that is. When you’re bogged down in the middle of a trilogy, and you just want to get things done, a flash fiction offers a nice, tasty treat for starting and finishing a project. If you find that your novels — hell, even your short stories —  end up fizzling out of your interest before you place the final full stop, perhaps consider flash fiction. It’s a micro-story, but it’s still a story. You can’t even say that it’s not a ‘real’ story; all of the above points are skills that full-length novels use.  Pieces of flash fiction are not a random thought or a Story That Couldn’t — they’re little, condensed pieces of entire worlds. When written right, you feel like you’ve read a novel. So, never think that a completed flash fiction should be sniffed at, or buried under novel plans. These little bastards can pack a punch.

So there you have it. That’s why I love flash fiction, and that’s what flash fiction has given me back in return. If you want a challenge that will test your writing skill, I highly recommend giving it a shot, even if it doesn’t end up going anywhere. It’s easily the most fun challenge I’ve experienced as a writer.



One Comment
  1. Yes, yes, yes. Agreed to all. The trimming, cutting back, smoothing out is definitely something that I always need practice with and working with a tight word count helps with that, for sure.

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