How to Write ‘Flash Fiction’
‘Flash Fiction’ is a name for a category of very short stories that are not only brief but also punchy. Writing successful short shorts is not an easy task. Unfortunately, too many flash fiction pieces bomb because the stories break our simple but inviolable rule: all stories must have a beginning, a middle and an ending – emblazon this directive across your forehead. The reader must experience a small sigh of satisfaction of a story well told. There are no exceptions.
These stories have much in common with fiction of a longer length, more so than with an excerpt or descriptive piece, no matter how well written. In other words, flash fiction, like any story, needs to have a beginning, a middle and an ending. The difference is that flash fiction doesn’t enjoy the luxury of length. It shares some commonalities with poetry, and indeed, sites such as the Iron Writer accept poems as long as they are under the requisite 500 words. But those poems, like all the flash fiction published on the site, is only successful when it has a story arc, just like other stories.
Flash fiction is often 500 words, although anything from less than ten words to, occasionally, longer than 500 can be found. What flash fiction is not, is a descriptive passage that leads nowhere, and that requisite alone eliminates most poems. And many ‘stories’, too.
Just because you’re writing a one-page story does not give you licence to break this sacrosanct rule. You may cut out adjectives and adverbs; you may only hint at location and eliminate the ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’ but you must not fiddle with the story line itself. In the end, after all sorts of culling to wrench a, say, 700 word story down to 500, you must still be left with a viable beginning, a middle where things get worse and an ending where things are resolved.
The Iron Writer has two formats: the regular 500 word weekly Challenge and the Weekend Quickie, which is fixed at 200 words. What makes the Iron Writer stories even more demanding is that each week, the writers must write their 500 word story which incorporates four disparate ‘elements’, or prompts, within the story; the Weekend Quickie has a photo prompt, an element and an emotion which must be incorporated within the 200-word story. The elements must blend seamlessly into the narrative so the reader is not jarred out of the story line. After reading a well-constructed 500 word story incorporating the four elements – none of which have any sort of obvious relationship with each other – the reader is left feeling satisfied, yet full of admiration. Writing good flash fiction is complex.
But you want to have a ‘go’? Okay, using the Iron Writer rules of engagement in a weekly Challenge, this is how you do it.
This banner greets you when you venture onto theironwriter.com site:
Following that are the names of the four contestants for that particular week. Then come the elements, often with a photograph of one of them.
I will take one challenge as an example of how to approach the problem. On Challenge 44, the four elements are:
A Bug Zapper
A Child’s Wagon
A faded Dragon Slayer Manual
Now I was not a contestant for this particular Challenge, but I wrote a 500 word story as if I were so I can take you through the process and, at the end, I’ll let you read the resultant story.
The first task is to see if there are any commonalities. Elements are chosen to have no commonalities, so it is up to your curly imagination to put together what others may not see. I saw two lots of two. The reason I saw these is because of my particular experiences in life. You will probably not guess the commonalities I see, and I will not be able to predict yours either. Our life experiences will nudge each of us into a unique position.
Your first task is to look at these elements and see if anything springs to mind where you could link any of the elements. Take your time. The connection doesn’t have to be obvious. The bug zapper, for instance, can be in an outdoor playroom which contains…you got it…a child’s wagon. That sort of thing.
When I look at these elements, I immediately link the bug zapper, an example of which hangs over the door from my own deck, and cranberries. Whaaaa? you ask. The answer is simple: I associate cranberries with cranberry sauce, part of a turkey dinner, maybe Christmas dinner. Christmas here in New Zealand occurs when we are just past the Summer Solstice, complete with the odd mosquito or fly. Now you understand why it is my particular experiences that will shape my specific story, and yours, your story. There are no rules about associations – leave it to your imagination, sleep on it, don’t worry at it like a dog with a bone; just let it seep into your consciousness.
I often have to start with only one commonality amongst the elements, but this time I have another set: the child’s wagon and the faded dragon slayer manual. A memory springs to mind: my uncle’s small metal wagon which may have been black when new but was more rust-coloured by the time the kids in our generation played with it. That, I’m sure you’ll recognise, goes together with a faded book in a strange sort of way (both old, both well used).
Those connections are examples of what you are looking for when you read the elements aloud (it’s always better to read aloud, in spite of funny looks you get from family).
Now how to link the two pairs of elements into one story? A story with a beginning, a middle and an ending? I have my setting: Christmas dinner outside on the deck on a hot summer’s day with the bug zapper going. So, Christmas…mmmmm. Christmas means presents. An old wagon? A faded book? Not exactly gift material…unless they are roped into the role.
Okay, we have a setting and we need a problem that can be solved by these funny old bits of junk. Maybe having forgotten to buy gifts for somebody, or hidden them so well you no longer know where. And somebody has to have the idea of using these two well-used items as presents. Now we’re getting somewhere. This is how I can use it:
Beginning: most beginnings start with a setting and a character (at least one). So I describe the setting (Christmas dinner outside, summertime). The beginning has to set up something. My character, I’ll call her Vee (it’s handy to have a list of names of babies born in a particular place in a particular year – otherwise you’ll find you keep wanting to reuse the same old names after a while) who is contemplating the family arriving, and none too happily. I just throw in the unhappy bit because that can lead to a bit of tension or drama later. Easily changed, if it doesn’t work out.
This means we now have a beginning. A good beginning introduces something that can be changed at the end. A good story links the ending to the beginning and that is most easily accomplished by introducing something untoward at the beginning. In this case, Vee is unhappy. That probably means she will have some resolution of her unhappiness by the end. I’m starting to feel good about this story. The beginning is sorted and we have an intimation of what can happen at the end.
But how? First we have to build the middle part of the story arc and we have those two other elements which must be incorporated smoothly into the story. A middle must complicate things for our character/s. It can provide more information that makes a solution look dicey or impossible. The middle usually is the longest part of the story, using the most words. It is also the middle where you usually prune when your word count is over the limits.
So, to write my middle: I have the tentative idea that the rusty old wagon and the faded book can be linked, can be presents that are clearly unsatisfactory (I mean, who wants old stuff at Christmas time?). So, this will invite a negative reaction. But…let your curly imagination float free…what if someone reacts favourably to these scungey old things? How could that be? Aha! I can use nostalgia.
So, my middle can be composed of Vee realising she has no presents for two of the family – let’s see – how about her brother and his little boy – and she hastily wraps up these old things: the wagon for the child and her brother’s own book from his childhood for him. You see? I’m using the middle to set up the happy ending.
The ending should be quick and slick. Often an ending is one line. At worst, one paragraph. And I find I spend far more time getting that ending right than writing the other 500 words. (If you have word count to spare, you can have a little denouement at the end of the ending. That happens, but rarely.)
The ending isn’t the brother’s nostalgia – that’s part of the middle. The ending is the resolution of Vee’s unhappiness. You see how you can be stung with your own cleverness? I’ve now got to figure out how her unhappiness can be resolved by her brother’s favourable (or maybe unfavourable – I can play with each) reaction to her unusual presents. Often, this is where you must sleep on it. If you’re lucky (?) you’ll have a sleepless night where you can nut it all out. Great, as long as you remember it all in the morning.
Maybe I can insert something in the beginning about a hot Christmas just not being Christmassy enough, making her depressed at the thought of not having a cold and snowy Christmas like she remembers. Nostalgia can work both ways.
You’ll notice that the story depends on the creation of a character who possesses reactions and feelings. Even in flash fiction, the character must be distinctive enough to engender an emotive reaction in the reader – it can be positive or negative but never boring. The character must be introduced at the beginning. We don’t have room for late introductions, not in 500 words (or worse, 200).
Incorporating the elements within the story is enormously important. Readers won’t tolerate a list if items, for instance, that your character sees in a second-hand shop window. The trick is to weave the elements into the story, hopefully making them integral to the narrative. Usually it’s not possible for all elements to feature, but their presence must have a valid reason for the reader; they must not feel like an add-on.
An ending makes the story worthwhile. It completes the story arc; it solves the problem or gives the character an out. A reader should feel fulfilled after reading the ending. A good ending has a surprise or a twist, or at least a hint of one. You want your reader to nod, not shrug. A shrug is usually produced when a reader reads one of two types of endings: the first is when the reader finds the ending all to obvious; the second is when the ending introduces something that has nothing to do with the story so far; it has no relevance, no meaning to the reader. A good ending relates to something in the rest of the story (even if it’s a surprise ending, it still relates). If not, and the ending is out of left field, we, the readers, shrug and move on to a story by a better writer.
Now, after a few drafts of how to word the ending to Vee’s story in a slick and quick way, I’m about there. Oops, I’ve just looked at the word count and, horror of horrors, it’s way way over the 500 word limit. (Actually, the Iron Writer Challenges allow a 5% leeway. This means you have 525 words in a pinch. I find those extra 25 words are a life-saver…too many times.)
The editing process: I approach it by querying each sentence. ‘Can I use one word where two or more are used? Does this sentence add to the story? Is this section absolutely vital or can the story afford to lose it?’ Too often, I realise my “darlings” are already known to the reader because I’ve already mentioned them (as an example, say we know a young woman is talking to her father, thus it is unnecessary to call her “his daughter” later). Pare, pare pare and you can end up with a polished gem.
Second, once you are happy with what you’ve written, have someone who knows their spelling, punctuation and grammar read your piece before submission. When these parts of good writing are missing, a reader tends to dismiss the story straight away. Sad but true.
The problem is, we just don’t see our own mistakes. And a spell-check misses words our brain has spelled (‘there’ instead of ‘their’ etc.). Typos are easy for all of us to make and we all hate finding them after submission. Your proof-reader will also give you feedback about how smoothly you’ve crafted the flow from beginning to end. If the proof-reader says something jarred, or was incomprehensible without re-reading several times, that means a re-write is needed. Sometimes we forget to include some vital bit of information; sometimes our endings are too abrupt – both problems because we are trying to squish a story into the word limit. But do listen to the critique. It’s a reader’s honest reaction and we need to value that.
Please welcome the editing process; working to a word limit is invaluable experience. If you are writing (or want to write) longer works, editing a story down to a ridiculously small number of words is vitally important training.
Here’s my little story. Please don’t read it as what to do, but rather, only as an example of what can be made from these elements.
Another Christmas Down-Under
It was hot.
Yet again Vee fought off the depression she suffered each antipodean Christmas; after all, you need snow and cold to really feel Christmassy. She swallowed a couple of antidepressants then checked the tables on the terrace, adjusted the sun-umbrellas and turned on the bug-zapper. She put the mustard pots and the cranberry sauce on the table and counted the places: thirteen. Right. The twelve apostles were expected, or…the twelve days of Christmas? She shook her head.
She shouldn’t have taken those pills.
She absent-mindedly counted the presents. Ten. That shocked her. Where were her gifts for her brother Ned and her nephew Jordan? What had she bought for them? Her muzzy head wasn’t working.
The Twelve started to arrive, everybody adding to the pile of presents under the tree. Someone shoved a glass of bubbly into her hand.
She really shouldn’t have taken those pills.
The noise level rose and people trooped out for Christmas lunch. Vee was on automatic pilot, serving, running back and forth from the kitchen, a smile plastered on her face.
Afterwards, everybody trooped down to the beach for a cool-off and a rest before present-unwrapping. Vee cleaned up.
Later, when the prezzy-unwrapping started, Vee realised she’d forgotten to search for her gifts for Ned and Jordan. She rushed to the garage. Forget that she probably had already bought something; just think what she could find out there.
The mountain of presents was diminishing when she returned with two hastily wrapped parcels. She cursed her foggy mind. What she’d found for them was so naff, so out of keeping with the shiny new gadgets, toys and what-nots being unwrapped, it was embarrassing.
Jordan opened his present from Auntie Vee. A child’s wagon, much scratched, somewhat rusty and dusty.
There was a little silence.
Vee quickly shoved the other embarrassing present into Ned’s hands. Might as well get it over quickly. He unwrapped it and held it aloft.
‘Wouldn’t you know Vee would come up with something so unique, so wonderful for Christmas!’ he said delightedly. ‘First giving Jordan his dad’s old wagon – I can’t tell you the fun I had with that thing. It was a car, a boat, a plane taking off as I raced down the hill at the back of the house. I loved it. I wanted Jordan to have it but it had been lost.’
Vee gave a tentative smile. ‘It was at Mum and Dad’s. After they died, I couldn’t throw it out either.’ She paused. ‘Glad you like it.’
But Ned wasn’t finished. ‘And look at this,’ he said, holding up a faded copy of “The Dragon Slayer’s Manual”.
‘When I was too big for my wagon, I discovered books. Folks, you’re looking at a dragon-slaying expert.’ He hugged his sister. ‘You couldn’t have given Jordan and me better presents. It’s the true spirit of Christmas, darling Vee. Making a person feel warm and full of happy childhood memories.’
Vee felt the last of the silly-pills leave her system. She had no thoughts of snow and how she missed it each year. Christmas was all about people. She had it here.
Okay, a little schmaltzy, but it has the requisite beginning and middle; it uses emotion, which goes from negative to positive in 500 words, thus giving us our ending, and it has a sympathetic character.
A quick analysis shows that the beginning introduces Vee and her emotion, her misguided attempt to get rid of the negative emotion by taking pills, and time and place circumstances, which allows us to work in two elements.
The middle is largely descriptive until she confronts her problem (missing presents) and ineffectively solves it (we, the readers, think it’s probably an inadequate solution and, as a result, we’re worried for her). But the solving of it provides us to work in the second two elements. The middle continues when her brother reacts positively to her solution.
The ending is only the last three short sentences, when Vee experiences a fundamental change in attitude. And the reader feels satisfied.
Most stories are based on manipulating emotion. For instance, having someone you dislike getting their comeuppance at the end. Or escaping a situation, when that’s the right thing to do. Or not escaping when it’s the right thing to do.
I did a survey of the first ten Challenges I wrote. Here is a list of the emotional topics introduced in the beginnings and, after some action in the middles, what changed in the endings:
- fear – escaping
- ignorant pride – realistic coping
- distain – respect
- blind belief – somewhat harsher truth
- arrogance – escaping (again!)
- murdering a father – himself being murdered by a son
- resourcefulness in kids – even more resourceful other kids
- disapproval – approval
- frustrated parents – same people but with a tad more understanding
- arrogance (again!) – excuses
As you can see, there are not too many duplications (although I have a penchant for arrogance and escaping…) and the topics are widely varied.
Now you’ve travelled with me using these four elements, go to
…and read the real contestants’ stories incorporating these same elements. You’ll probably be as amazed (as I always am) when you see the creative ways others have handled the same four elements.
The second type of flash fiction the Iron Writer promotes is the Weekend Quickie which is not a contest, merely an opportunity for authors to flex their writing muscles and to post the resulting short short story publically in the box following the term ‘Leave a Reply’, where you are invited to leave a comment. It’s open to anybody and I’m encouraging you to participate.
However, and this is a big however, it is more difficult to write a good 200 word story than a 500 word story – believe me – because this little story also has to have a beginning, a middle and an ending. It needs a viable character. It needs to use the supplied emotion and to incorporate something about the provided photo and the prompt. No nice descriptions. No poetic scenes where nothing happens. It has to be a complete story with a story arc, as always, although it’s not a contest. Remember, a story with an arc comes across best.
The requirement, in a Weekend Quickie, is to incorporate a photograph that is provided, a prompt and an emotion. Like this:
A Tangerine Lifesaver
We attack the problem in exactly the same way as we approached the 500 word Challenge. First you gaze at the photo, noticing if you can use anything that may tie in with the prompt and the emotion. Hmmm. Gino is the owner’s name. Maybe the husband and father of that lot. A tangerine lifesaver? My first thought is a lifebuoy on a ship, of an orangey-tangerine colour. Could I do something with Gino going onto a cruise ship?
Only 200 words…
Okay, how about a reluctant Gino, who is so tied to his café, he never goes on holiday, gets shanghaied by his wife (maybe the lady sitting on the deck chair in the grey print frock?) who thinks it’s time to cruise.
That will take care of the photo and the prompt.
‘Inspired creativity’…well, that means some inspired creativity that Gino has to display, because nothing especially creative springs to my mind beforehand.
What it signals to me is to start writing. Things do pop into my head when in the process of writing. And we know the setting will be on board ship – for the middle and ending, anyway.
Now, how to incorporate a lifesaver into the story. I have the germ of an idea. Why not give Gino something he is panicky about that might involve a lifebuoy? Maybe where he does something with the lifesaver that can be viewed as ‘inspired creativity’?
Emotions are always good to play with when contemplating writing a story. In the 500 word story above, I used nostalgia. But there are lots of emotions from which to chose. We don’t have to stick with the emotion given as a prompt – there’s room for an additional (often negative) one, because we know a possible ending could involve a negative emotion which is resolved. In this case, inspired creativity can be part of the resolution.
So, why not have Gino’s reluctance to go on holiday something to do with a fear? A bad fear like a phobia? How about fear of fire, for instance, which would mean Gino could be quite panicky about being on a ship in the middle of the ocean.
I start writing…get his fear down as part of the beginning. The middle is…well, why not a fire? Only maybe he’s asleep and doesn’t fully realise it’s only a fire drill?
Oh boy, over 300 words. I’ll have to cut and slash to get it down to 200. All the lovely little details of seaboard life I’d included (yes, I’ve been on a cruise – it helps to use settings you know). After a traumatic fifteen minutes or so, I have a bare-bones story of the requisite length.
Here’s my little 200 word Weekend Quickie:
‘You’re always working,’ his wife had said. ‘Leave the restaurant for a bit. I’ve booked us on a cruise.’
Gino had never admitted to his wife that his fear – a phobia, he guessed – was being caught somewhere during a fire. Like in a big building. Or worse, a large ship.
Gino had been fast asleep beside the ship’s pool. A screaming alarm jerked him awake.
‘Whaaaaa—?’ Gino asked.
The very foreign man next to him bellowed, ‘Like a fire!’
‘Fire!’ the fellow screamed. ‘Fire!’
Gino was awake now. He frantically looked for a way out; then he saw a large tangerine lifesaver with ‘St. Cecilia – London’ written in white around the ring. He dashed over, wrenched it off the bracket and pulled it over his sweating body to centre it around his ample middle.
‘Thank you, folks,’ said a loud voice over the Tannoy. ‘Fire drill over.’
Gino could feel himself redden. He glanced from left to right; yes, people were watching, including his wife. He smiled broadly, held his nose and jumped into the pool. The lifebuoy did its job and bobbed him up instantly.
‘Great luxury, this ship,’ Gino called out. ‘Even provides swimming floaties.’
I hope you smiled, just a little.
The beginning is the set-up where Gino’s wife says she’s booked a cruise and we find out about Gino’s phobia.
The middle is Gino asleep, waking up, panicking when he finds his worst fears are realised, rushing for the lifesaver, discovering it’s all a fire drill, becoming acutely embarrassed.
The ending is his actioning his inspired creative thought of jumping into the pool, pretending he thinks the lifesaver is a swimming floaty provided for the passengers’ enjoyment.
But what happens when you’re given an impossible element (or even more than one) that freaks you out? I’ll give an example of one that panicked me, big time, (but before you shake your head at this and leave, let me reassure you that this one is particularly vile, way more than any others I’ve come up against in the Iron Writer exercises). It was: Uncle Boom-Boom, your mother’s sister’s second husband.
I told you so. I tore my hair out over that one. Eventually, I incorporated it into a book my protagonist had stopped reading in disgust, and used this as a quote to illustrate how badly the book was written! That problem of a weird element happens every so often. And sometimes you just cannot come up with a way of incorporating it into a story that is forming in other directions. So, put it into a speech bubble, maybe, as if someone is trying to be funny or alternatively, confusing. Or have it as a riddle to be solved – ‘Who is this guy who’s trying to muscle in?’ ‘It’s Larry – you know, Uncle Boom-Boom, we used to call him – your mother’s sister’s second husband’. Something like that.
If worse comes to worse and you still have an element unincorporated in the story, write up what you have and put it away to ferment. Coming back to it and working your way through, or having a brilliant idea in the middle of the night, can and does happen.
To reiterate the principles covered in this article:
- Every story must have a beginning, a middle and an ending (a story arc), no matter the word length.You approach the task of writing the story by finding some connection between two of the elements. See if any other connections occur to you with the set of elements you have already paired. Do the elements belong in the setting (as an aside or even featuring in the beginning)? Do they present themselves as part of the problem in the middle? Or are they vital to the ending?a beginning sets up a character or two and a setting, or at least hints at one, and often introduces some negative emotion
- a middle develops a problem, complicates it or makes things worse
- the ending relates to the beginning and resolves whatever problem the middle was concerned about or, perhaps, clears up a misunderstanding.
- If no connection between the elements occurs to you, you must figure out a way of incorporating the element/s by manipulating what you were originally going to do – a side story, putting a quote into somebody’s mouth perhaps. If still no connection occurs to you, start writing. Inspiration often follows.
- Sometimes you write many more hundreds of words before something happens and a resolution of the problem finally occurs to you. Then you cut, cut and cut again to get the word count down.
- Actually, you probably will have to cut, cut and cut some more anyway. Words have a tendency to multiply when writing stories.
- See which negative emotions you can play with – negative at the beginning and resolved by the end – or the other way around. Positive to more positive works too. The most successful stories include a change in raw feelings.
When is a piece not a suitable flash fiction story suitable for the Iron Writer Challenges, therefore incapable of winning?
- When a beginning, middle or ending is missing.
- When a character is so featureless, we don’t care.
- When a story does not meet the word limits.
- When a story does not incorporate the elements.
Flash fiction is called by that name because people can read an entire story in a flash – not because you can produce a short short in a flash. That rarely happens. Writing flash fiction is great fun, but reasonably difficult. However, like everything else, you get better with practice. Good luck with it.
But be careful: writing flash fiction is addictive.
Iron Writer Participant