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A Flash Fiction Guide

This is the second episode of the Writer’s Platform series. Find out why all writers need an online platform here.

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When was the last time you did a bit of people-watching?

I’m talking about those great moments when you find yourself sitting in a café by a window, or waiting on a train platform, and you need to find a way to amuse yourself. Watching other people is something we all do automatically every day, but there’s a peculiar intrigue in spending time on it unnoticed, looking at everyone that walks past.

When we watch others, we automatically try and place them in our minds. We imagine who they are, where they may be going, and what the relationship between certain people may be. A mismatched couple could lead us to think up all sorts of scenarios – a child bride and her sugar daddy, perhaps, or best friends, or business colleagues thrown together unwillingly.

It is these musings that spark off the creative process for writers, opening up new channels of possibility and giving us great fodder for producing new variations on words.

Flash fiction is the best possible vehicle for transcribing these everyday experiences. Within one sentence or so, we are able to start, expand upon, and finish a story that holds a wealth of possibility beneath each word, just as we do when we watch people and imagine scenarios about them.

Even the most succinct story can capture years of history, adversity, joy or adventure, because the reader puts in all the background information, furnishing it with their own opinions, experiences and ideas.

This is why flash fiction works so well – it gives us a sparse outline of potential, and expects the reader to customize it and make it their own. In the very act of understanding it, the reader has already painted a full picture in his or her mind about the meaning of the sentence.

 

Look at this example of great flash fiction:

 

Death Trap 

The growing hatred between Mary and Robert was such that a killing was inevitable. Mary had a plan, baiting Robert incessantly in the hope that he would kill her. The note he found after he shot her read, “Thank you, Robert. Doctors had given me only two months. I hope you rot in prison forever.” (Ernie Glenesk).

 

The story is short, but in the simple sentences you immediately know a wealth of details about the relationship between Mary and Robert – the antagonism, the passion, and the fact that something extraordinary has taken place between them.

The rules of flash fiction depend on your own preferences, but the idea is to tell a story as succinctly as possible, with very few words. The number of words vary depending upon who is setting the rules, but a limit of one hundred is ideal to keep your plot short, your characters intriguing, and the fiction succinct.

I prefer the 55-word format established by Steve Moss  who co-founded the New Times paper. According to his rules summarized at Wikipedia, a literary work will be considered 55 Fiction if it has:

  1. Fifty-five words or less (non-negotiable);
  2. A setting;
  3. One or more characters;
  4. Some conflict;
  5. A resolution (not limited to moral of the story).

Flash fiction doesn’t need to have an astonishing twist at the end, but this can really help to give your readers a sense of surprise, making it more pleasurable to read.

Whatever your preference for flash fiction, it’s a great way of sharpening your teeth on a wealth of new ideas, sharing killer plots or simply recording the outputs of your musings while you’re engaging in a good session of people watching!

If you’d like to share your flash fiction examples and win money, please enter our very own Contest. See the large red button saying “Write Your Story” on the left?

Click it now and get flash-writing!

February 2013’s prompt is:

ADVENTURE: Write a story based on any adventure.

 “ADVENTURE”

 

Diver with Aurora

Please use the overall theme for your stories – there’s no obligation to spend precious words using the exact quote, as long as you can capture the mood.

Which prompt would you like in January?

  • Elizabeth John

    Very good essay, Austin. And on point. I have to say, I never thought I could write a story in 55 words–actually, I never even thought it possible to consider a story a story in only 55 words. i’ve actually surprised myself with the two I’ve written for your contest so far. Can’t wait until next month!

    • http://www.austinbriggs.com Austin Briggs

      Thanks Elizabeth – I have to say, I was concerned a little in the very beginning. I love brief writing, but was worried that 55 words might be too brief :) But many excellent stories here clearly proved me wrong.