Flash fiction—generally defined as stories 1,000 words or less—is seeing a rise in popularity, especially online.
But how can you write a story in only 1,000 words?
Tips for Writing a Flash Story
Include the Elements of a Story
Remember, you’re writing a story. It has a beginning, middle and end. And like all stories, it must have character, settings, plot, conflict. Finally, something must change during the story—a character discovers something about him/herself; a simple event has far-reaching consequences.
Decide What Element Is Primary, the Rest Are Secondary
The tale of three-dimensional characters in sumptuous settings engaged in a complex plot requires many thousands of words. For flash, focus on one element of storytelling. Is your story about a character? An event? An idea? Use details for that piece and quick, simple sketches for the others.
Keep the Action in One Location
For each setting, you need to describe it as well as the transition and the motivation for moving from one to another. So, keep your story in a single location. Once described, give indications throughout the story–smells, texture, furniture, people–to keep the story grounded.
Use Clichés, Stereotypes and Tropes
While all stories should strive to be original, using things we’ve seen before quickly establishes story elements in the reader’s mind. Think about:
- The tough-as-nails woman business executive who secretly longs for marriage and children
- 2 a.m. at an all-night diner just off the highway in the middle of nowhere
- The whore with the heart of gold and her possessive, violent pimp
- A rusty, iron door at the bottom of a metal staircase in the basement of an abandoned warehouse
We’ve seen these things before and they provoke certain expectations, imagery and feelings. While clichés in longer works are frowned upon as unoriginal, in shorter fiction they work to your advantage. In a few words, you can establish setting, tone or character.
And it might also provide the opportunity for misdirection.
Establish Setting, Character and Conflict Quickly
Throwing too much at a reader quickly can overwhelm them. Even in short stories, you should take a page or two to introduce characters, setting and conflict. In flash fiction, all of this should be established in a paragraph or two. Readers will only be with your character(s) for a few pages, so set the stakes quickly.
Establish a “Hook” in the Opening Line
This advice applies to all fiction, but is vital in flash. Readers have to sit up and pay attention immediately. Don’t open with the line “It was sunny.” Try:
- The morning sun barely penetrated the coils of black smoke filling the sky.
- It was a sunny morning, marking the beginning of the 2,000th day without rain.
- If I could’ve had a say, I’d have wanted thunderstorm on the morning of my death instead of sunshine.
What Flash Fiction Is Not
With all of this said, there are types things to avoid when writing flash fiction.
The Knock-Knock Joke
A knock-knock joke is 90% misdirection, 10% gotcha! Though amusing, for fiction this is lazy writing. Like “It was all a dream” or “But they were already dead” endings, all the effort is put into building up to the switch, not telling a good story.
Flash fiction should be a complete story, not a scene from a larger story. No matter how well-written, something should change over the course of a story.
17 comments on "How to Write Flash Fiction"
I really loved your post and the information in it, Matt. I’m currently working on a flash fiction serial story (story with the same plot/characters/setting, but each story has a different scenario in it) and your post really inspired to get started.
Thanks for leaving a post, Alexia. I’m thrilled I could inspire you to start your project. Best of luck!
I’ve been putting up a flash piece every day on my blog -Sitting In Darkness.
I can’t believe how much easier it feels to write a full short story after pumping out flash pieces on a daily basis. All that room…it feels decadent.
Thanks for the post.
Incredibly informative post! While I knew flash fiction needed these elements, your concise discussion really helped me visualize the end product. With my sights set on getting published on some science fiction websites, flash fiction seems to be the preferred route for many of these places. Thanks!
Glad I could help, David. Best of luck with your writing.
Exactly what I needed. Just starting with Flash, used to the patience of a novel. Finding it challenging and I’m sure this will tighten my writing skills. Your post explains it all and I especially love your comment about Flash still needing a beginning, middle and end.
I’m sharing a link to this on my blog post!
Glad you found it valuable, Charmaine. I have read so many mood pieces that are not true stories. So the element you commented on is obviously my pet peeve, which is why it appears first in the post.
Good luck with your writing and stick with it! Great flash pieces take almost as much planning as a novel, but for the opposite reason: how much can you jam into the smallest space?
Hello Matt! I am one of the students you greeted at the beginning of this insightful article from Full Sail University. I am currently in my “Creative Skills Development” class for my Creative Writing for Entertainment degree. We were instructed to read this article to help us write a flash fiction piece for our portfolio! Thank you for writing!
Thanks for the message. Can you write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know who I could talk to to learn more about your program? I’d love to help out if I could.
In the meantime, I’m glad this helped you out!
Yes, Matt, I am here for a course at Full Sail. My course is Creative Writing Skills. I am enjoying it immensely and wish to say I love this article. Thank you!
Thanks, Megan! If there’s other topics you’re interested in, please me know.
As I’m sure someone already mentioned, it is indeed part of a flash fiction for a Creative Skills Development class. I really dig this post. Thanks for being awesome!
Thanks for the comment, Linzi! It’s great to know this is helping folks.