Writing Flash Fiction

Described as an iridescent insect, a reduction, an opening, a pearl spun around a piece of grit.  It could be based on fact, but it’s fictional – that’s in the name – but still, it might hurt like it’s true.

Flash can be any genre it chooses.  It can dress up, dress down, dress to impress or go commando.  It’s a delinquent midget-gem that resists that kind of pigeonholing.

The one thing generally agreed about flash fiction is that it is short.  Exactly how short is another matter altogether with no absolute consensus.  Five hundred words perhaps?  The Americans often double that and still call it flash.  So, a thousand then, but is it flashy enough?  So, go short.  Shorter.  Three hundred, two hundred?  How low can you go?  Hemingway, that titan of muscular prose liked six.  ‘For sale; baby shoes, never worn.’  One of my favourites is sixty-something.  So, it’s short.  Let’s settle on that.

What else matters?  For me, Voice and Reach and Resonance. 

Voice is easy to explain.  It’s that inexplicable, intrinsic aspect of each and every great fiction.  It’s the thing that snags you from the start.  It’s in the vocabulary, the pauses, the imagery, quirk, dialect, flavour, syntax.  It is a uniquity that latches into your ear with tiny hooks or burrs, or maybe trickles in like wax or honey.  It is an exotic insect that crawls in and tickles you as you read and twists into your imagination. 

And Reach?  That is to do with plot.  In three hundred words (or whatever) there may not seem to be the room to shoehorn in a conventional three-act plot structure, yet a sketch, or a vignette just won’t do.  The scope of your fiction might be five minutes, five days, a generation, or an eon.  All of these are possible, but you might have to break some rules and cut some corners to give the reader the conviction that they are reading a story, a complete story in miniature, from alpha to omega, from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo, or from once-upon-a-time to happily-ever-after. 

Flash fiction might cry out for prologue, backstory, denouement, climax, satisfying lose-end-tying conclusion or an open-ending, or a coda or an epilogue that exists only as a glint of a thought, and to provide these things, or at least the illusion of them, you will need to use sleight of hand.  The writer is a conjuror, a prestidigitator who will draw the mind’s eye to the before and the after – the story will reach forward and back.  Yet it will not feel like an episode but a story complete in itself, telling all the reader needs to know, all there is to be told.  Or telling just enough.  The reader will fill in the rest.  Flash readers are smart like that.

And it will have resonance.  It will linger, it will stay with you like a small silvery scar on the skin of your dreams.

Flash Fiction can be very disruptive, playing fast and loose with a lot of those rules about writing.  What rules might you break?

  1. Stories should have a beginning, middle and end.  Scrap that.  Flash hardly gets past the beginning.  Flash is always close to the end.  You could start in the middle, in media res or you could squeeze that out altogether.
  2. Create original characters.  Maybe. Or you could use archetypes to save thousands of words.  Goldilocks – you know she’s an adventurous, entitled, blonde, and she gets caught.  You also know she is very, very picky.
  3. Write what you know.  Or alternatively, you could use your imagination.

What rules should you not break?  Here are two.

  1. Make every word count.
  2. Sweat the title.

And that sixty-something worder?

What Are You Using For Bait?‘ by Bruce Holland Rogers

He comes into the Manitowish bait shop every day, asking beginner’s questions and lingering at her counter. Friday he holds a fish he says he caught. She thinks, A salmon? In Wisconsin? She doesn’t let on. He’s going to grill it. Does she want to come? Her last boyfriend was a liar too. But she likes salmon. She figures she can take the bait and spit out the hook.

Published in: Tara L. Marsh (ed) 2009, Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Brookline MA: The Rose Metal Press

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