Flash fiction has become increasingly popular in recent years.
You've probably noticed a plethora of websites and online publications dedicated entirely to flash fiction or microfiction, and perhaps even call-outs in your own inbox from publishers after a bit of drabble.
The popularity of this form is a result of the digital age we’re living in, where we enjoy instant access to information and to each other. This constant and pervasive demand for our attention has decreased our ability to concentrate.
Back in 2015, many internet users shared a study from Microsoft that likened humans to goldfish, stating that the average human can only concentrate on one thing for about eight seconds.
The goldfish claim has since been refuted, but the fact remains that as consumers, we like to receive information in scannable, manageable chunks. We want the meaning of our information to be distilled to its very essence.
Hence the popularity of flash fiction! Let's dive into this form of creative writing to discover what it is, how to write it, and where to submit your work for publication.
What is flash fiction?
Flash fiction isn't anything new. It can be traced right back to the humble fable in ancient Greece and India.
The Panchatantra, for example, is a collection of Indian animal fables that may date back as early as 100 BCE. It contains five interwoven parts, each of which acts as a frame for several smaller stories contained within.
Each part features animals to moralise the human experience through such themes as friendship, loss and war. It’s a 'rabbit hole' journey, where layers of understanding develop and grow with each story, frame and part.
Much later, in the 1900s, flash fiction became the 'short short story', featuring in mainstream publications such as Cosmopolitan and anthologies such as The American Short Short Story.
In 1925 Ernest Hemingway released In Our Time, a collection that included 18 vignettes (or flash fiction pieces). Hemingway is also attributed by some as the author of one of the world's most famous flash fiction pieces (see flash fiction tip #3 below).
From around 1940 to 1980, the publishing industry entered its golden age. Developed world economies were strong; businesses saw a direct return on advertising investment and spent up big on glossy ads, meaning published fiction writers could financially sustain themselves.
Then new media hit! The digital age of information saw the democratisation of access to information. Previous high-rolling publishing companies lost grip on their monopolies as readers flocked online to consume content from a wider range of voices and experiences than ever before.
As access to information increased, tolerance for long-form content decreased – hence the rise of flash fiction and all its different forms.
Flash fiction subgenres
The term 'flash fiction' technically refers to any work of fiction up to (but always under) 1000 words.
However, there is a range of subgenres within the wider flash fiction genre. While strict definitions and word counts for terms such as 'nanofiction' and 'microfiction' vary between sources, some of the main flash fiction categories include:
- Stories under 10 words
- Example: the four-word story 'Widow’s First Year' by Joyce Carol Oates: 'I kept myself alive.'
- Example: the six-word story often attributed to Hemingway: 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.'
- Stories under 55 words
- Length: 25–55 words
- Examples: Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer
- Examples: 55 Fiction
- Length: up to 140 characters
- Examples: Nanoism
- The Dribble
- Length: 50 words
- Examples: FiftyWordStories.com
- The Drabble
- Length: 100 words
- Examples: 100WordStory.org
- Nanofiction or microfiction
- Length: up to 300 words
- Examples: Nanofiction.org
- Sudden Fiction
- Length: from 750 words up to a maximum of 1,500 words
- Examples: Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories
How to write flash fiction
Writing flash fiction is an exercise in restraint. The limited word count requires you to be economical with words.
There isn’t space to be coy or to waver on the periphery of meaning. Ambiguity or purple prose is not an option.
Flash fiction leaves no room for self-doubt, either. You must put aside your inner critic. You need to be confident and brave, and you need to believe in your writer’s voice.
You must give yourself the permission to go deeper into a subject, to be honest with your readers by first being honest with yourself.
Honesty. Truth. Succinctness. These are elements you need to tap into to write good flash fiction.
The difference between flash fiction and poetry
At first, some people mistake flash fiction for poetry. On the surface the forms appear to be similar, but look underneath and the subtle differences are more noticeable.
One main difference is that flash fiction has a plot. It has a beginning, middle and end.
Even in some of the shortest flash fiction stories, there’s a story arc, whereas poetry tends to describe a moment through prose.
While flash fiction contains the poetic elements of imagery and rhythm, its writers are less dedicated to exploring poetic constructs and more to exploring human experience.
Tips for writing flash fiction
Let’s dive into some top flash fiction tips so you can try this form out for yourself.
Tip #1: Set the scene instantly
The opening of any piece of writing is important, but never more so than in flash fiction.
Set the scene. Describe the action. Show your reader exactly what’s happening. This is your starting point. Make your first sentence succinct.
Drop your reader straight into the conflict, into the very guts of the story. By the end of your first sentence, you want your readers engrossed in the opening scene.
But don’t get hung up on this when drafting. You can be ruthless in your subsequent edits.
Tip #2: Be intimate
When writing flash fiction, really know what you’re writing about. Understand what your characters are feeling and experiencing. Pretend you’re a director and see each of your scenes in slow motion.
If you’re writing about the glow of a character’s hair in the late afternoon sun, distill what you see into the shortest nugget of description. Take your reader there.
If your theme is disappointment, dive into the emotion, open that wound, let bleed onto the page the very essence of being let down.
Whatever the emotion is, delve deep into its core and resist the urge for frills.
Tip #3: Use microscopic focus
In flash fiction, there’s only room for one small idea. A micro-experience. Big ideas are for novellas and novels.
For now, think small so you can focus precisely on one thing. Microscope focus doesn’t allow for backstory or resolution.
Let’s use, for example, the famous flash fiction piece, supposedly by Ernest Hemingway: 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.'
Talk about small ideas! This story has only six words, but it’s all the more profound because of this.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why the baby shoes weren’t worn. The reason doesn’t change the tragedy. And the tragedy isn’t lost.
If anything, it’s compounded by not knowing why those shoes weren’t worn. It's the readers' job to come to their own conclusions.
Keep your focus as laser-sharp as this whenever you're writing flash fiction.
Tip #4: Know your characters
You have limited space in which to give your readers fully formed characters. So make sure you know them well before they appear on the page.
Do this by injecting as much personality as possible into their dialogue, their interactions with others, the way they dress, etc.
Limit your characters to one or two. If you use more than two characters, be sure of their purpose in the story.
Start your flash fiction story plotting with your protagonist in mind and build your story from there. What happened to them? What is this character going through? How do they feel about it?
What is it about the character’s experience that’s worth sharing?
Tip #5: Be economical with language
Imagine you had to part with something for each word that you use.
For example, if each word you typed cost 10 cents, you’d take great care to choose the most perfect word, to create the most succinct sentence.
Being economical with language and word choice will make your flash fiction all the more effective, which means you’ll have a better chance at being published. It’s that simple.
Tip #6: Edit, edit, edit
In all writing, editing is where the magic happens, and this is most true with flash fiction.
Write your first draft as long as you want to. Just get the words out. You can cut everything right back at editing stage.
Remember the above tip about being economical. Get rid of unnecessary words. Check your sentences for ambiguity. Tighten meaning and sharpen language use.
Editing is also a great stage in which to get specific in your detail. For example, replace 'flower' with 'iris', or 'insect' with 'fiddler beetle', or 'car' with 'Mustang'.
Tip #7: Read
A range of household-name fiction writers have turned their hand to flash fiction, from Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway and John Updike to Lydia Davis and Margaret Atwood.
More recent flash fiction offerings are plentiful online. Do a Google search for flash fiction or any of its subgenres to find what you like.
As with all genres of writing, reading makes us all better writers. Reading flash fiction shows us how other writers have tackled theme, subject and tone within limited word counts.
Flash fiction writing prompts
To get started in this style, try these three flash fiction prompts.
In 100 words, explore the experience of Fred. He’s a staunch, cynical fisherman who has a near-death experience out at sea after his boat capsizes. What insights does Fred experience?
Within the same 24 hours, 20-year-old Joanne finds out she has an aggressive stage-four cancer but has also won millions on her winning lottery ticket.
A twin brother returns home to his family after being in jail for ten years.
Is he imagining it, or do his brother and wife stand too close as they prepare food for the welcome-home dinner? Are they cosily finishing each other’s sentences throughout the meal?
Where to submit flash fiction
There’s never been a better time to be a flash fiction writer. With the form's increasing popularity, the number of publications and competitions seeking flash fiction has exploded.
Consistency helps all writers improve their craft. Writing regularly and trying different styles and techniques is a great way to explore your skills and develop your style.
Learning how to write flash fiction (and any of its subgenres) is no different. It will make you a better writer – you won't have a choice!
The limited word count demands you to dismantle meaning, to deconstruct human experience and hold it in your mind, to analyse it from every angle, to be brave and honest with your findings.
Have a go at flash fiction yourself. In a society where the demands for our attention are inescapable, the world needs the sweet distraction of your creative short, short, short stories.