Flash Fiction is fiction written using the smallest amount of words possible, usually between 10 and 100 words. Also known as micro-fiction in America, extreme versions of flash fiction can see authors pen stories in fewer than three sentences. But how can you write a complete story in so few words? Surely it will lack information?
In reality all stories lack information. No short story or novel can ever colour in every important description and scrap of information. In fact, it would be dull if they did. You want to leave some room for imagination on the reader’s part. In good stories, the plot should give just enough information for the readers to be able to fill in the blanks for themselves.
As with longer pieces of writing, you need a strong beginning, a middle, and an ending which surprises, satisfies, or shocks. Your characters must be as developed and relatable to the reader as they would if you were writing a 100,000 word novel, and your sense of place must be both tangible and believable.
One of the reasons flash fiction is such a good tool for the aspiring writer is that it helps to teach you how to make an instant impact. There is no time for hanging around with an introduction or revving up. You must begin straight into the action. Flash fiction requires brevity. An author must convey the plot in a succinct manner and make every word count. In a world where our attention span is shorter than it ever was, due to the availability of instant technologies, the ability to grab and keep a reader’s attention is more vital than ever before.
Description in flash fiction can be difficult, as you have so few words to play with. This is where descriptive shorthand can become useful. We use micro-descriptions all the time without realising it. For example, when it comes to location, we can say a place is ‘Dickensian’. This immediately conjures up images of Victorian London streets with old lamp posts, cobbles, London fogs, poverty and people in top hats travelling my horse and cart. It we think of a ‘Chocolate Box Village’ we immediately picture Cotswold thatched cottages with neat gardens, a pub and a small village shop.
A similar form of shorthand can also be used when writing characters. People can be coffee addicts, sinister, eccentric and so on. In longer works of fiction you’d describe a person’s quirks and personality traits in more detail. In flash fiction you need to sum up their essence only, keeping to what is most pertinent to the plot.
The most famous work of flash fiction was written by Ernest Hemingway, and is only 6 words long. “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
This story works so well because it engages your emotions. The sadness implicit behind the final two words leaves you wondering why the shoes had to be sold. Perhaps a baby was still-born or maybe there was a last minute abortion? There are endless possibilities once you start to think about it.
Stories are written by asking and answering questions. With this in mind, a work of flash fiction can inspire greater work. A flash fiction story can ask questions you want to answer more fully and thus inspire a full novel. If you think about this in terms of Hemingway’s six word tale, you could expand it into a novel about a woman and her separation from her baby, or the death of a baby and the consequences that go with that heart breaking event.
Writing a very short piece of fiction can help warm the brain up to a longer idea. For example, if you wanted to write a story centred on an escape from captivity to freedom, you could focus on just the escape itself, and write that one element of the story in descriptive brevity. This could give you a introduction to your longer work, as flash fiction gives the instant impact effect you need for the beginning of a novel.
If you enjoy writing, why not have a go at flash fiction? As should be clear by now, it can be a good base from which to expand to more substantial work. It also produces excellent stories and teaches the all-important craft of making every word on the page count. Last but by no means not least, flash fiction is a lot of fun!
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.