I write between four and eight flash stories each month. Sometimes many more, as I often use flash pieces as building blocks for my bigger stories.
This article was originally done in reply to a query. When posting the short version in answer to a request on a forum, it (finally) occurred to me that this might be of interest or use to a wider audience.
Inspiration comes from anywhere. Sometimes it’s as simple as thinking what would happen if the accepted outcome of an event didn’t occur. Why didn’t it occur? e.g. You put your cup and saucer down on the table, misjudge the edge, and down the tea goes. But, this time, it just sits there, unsupported, a metre off the floor. Super-superglue on the edge? Invisible alien? Gravitational anomaly? And away the story goes.
Just Write! The words are the medium for the story, but the story is the creative drive. Get that clever idea/plot/scenario written down. You can refine the words over and over, but that moment of inspiration will never come back in the same form, if at all.
Make your title work for you. You haven’t got a lot of room, so the title should do some of the work. Sometimes, you can be cheeky with it – in example, one of my own favourite titles is “Hanging from a Ledge on Mantriss V”. That’s setting, opening act, and hook. That being said, don’t give away the heart/dénouement of the tale in your drive for a clever title.
Action is not the all. Flash fiction is often touted as a medium with a ‘show not tell’ bias. I find it can fit for the poignant, quiet moments, as well. Like before or just after the action, something the action movie would skip. A character’s personal thoughts or interactions, reminiscences or what ifs can be powerful stuff. That being said –
Always try to do something. A good story should have a dynamism about it. You’ll not always achieve it, but do try as the best flash pieces always have it. In the most basic example: A lone character doing dry exposition can be tedious. A lone character remembering a moment and it’s aftermath? Still (could even have parts of the same) exposition, but narrated in a different way. Following on from that –
Information afterwards. If you go for setting up front, your reader is likely to ‘click away’. Get something going on, the old in media res trick (simplest example: the opening of Star Wars IV), then fill in the details. But only for this bit of the tale. A full world build in one flash is impossible and irrelevant. If you find yourself going on and on to set the scene, chances are you’re telling the wrong bit of that particular story.
Keep it focused. Think about your environment when walking down the street. There’s a wealth of information and description involved to detail the scene for those not there, but to walk along, all you need is clear pavement. Your characters will be the same: there’s no need to tell what isn’t absolutely essential for their ‘walking along’ in your story. But –
The reader has to understand what you mean. Common archetypes, descriptions, and set ups can save you words because your mention of a familiar term or accepted description (see how often the neon-lit market/streets of Blade Runner are used as a cue for ‘future dystopia’) allows the reader to fill in details from your ‘shorthand’. Conversely, if you’re being innovative, the audience may not understand from a purely character-based viewpoint. You’re going to have to help them grasp the concept, and being subtle is good: they should become aware without having a brute definition thrust at them. Also, if a clever wordplay/slang/name could be misinterpreted as a typo, find an alternative. Oh, and be careful when using unusual or new slang (or that ‘future slang’ you came up with) – unless context absolutely clarifies it, don’t use it.
Use a thesaurus. When every word counts, variety and using the gamut of available words is essential. Could be as simple as giving a character a unique voice by having her or him consistently use uncommon variants of a word or two.
Never let it out immediately. Wait at least a day, preferably two – at least. I try to get my definite submissions for the following month done by the middle of the previous month, because I know it will take at least four review passes to refine and correct them where necessary.
NB: You really should get at least one literary-capable friend to proofread your work. I have half-a-dozen proofreaders and a pair of critical editors who make sure my books are tidy.
My monthly flash fiction is the only format in which I allow myself to step round the rule, because I found that I intensely disliked getting a virtual kicking from reviewers and readers pointing out my errors. Consequently, my craft has improved. That being said, it’s a Pavlovian way of refining your craft. Save yourself the pain that might put you off. Get a proofreader involved.
Nobody reads your story the same way. All you can do is do the best you can with the tale you’re relating. You can’t say if your stories are good, that’s for your readers to decide. You can create stories you are happy with, stories you are pleased with, and – very occasionally – stories you love. Expect to be surprised: stuff you love gets no response yet stuff you thought reasonable gets raved over. Most importantly, you have to bear in mind that –
Not everyone will like your story. This is inevitable. Many won’t say a thing. Some will mention it. The ones to be ready for are the ones who didn’t like it and are determined to make that your fault. Let it go and don’t take it to heart. You can’t win ‘your imaginary world is not right’ battles. Don’t even try.
Have fun. Above all – and always – have fun.
Hope this helps.