I critique flash fiction for my Flash 500 Competition entrants and I find many writers make the basic error of thinking an anecdote or character sketch counts as a complete story. That isn’t the case at all. Flash fiction has to cover all the elements of a longer story, but in fewer words. Impossible? Not if you bear the following tips in mind.
Know your theme
Before you even start to write, you need to know what you want your readers to take from the story. Don’t confuse this with the plot, which is the vehicle you will use to convey the theme.
Give the characters a reason to be on the page. Give them some kind of goal, something to achieve or an obstacle to overcome. Make life difficult for them. The story has to have plenty of conflict or tension and a satisfying (but not necessarily happy) resolution. If using humour, remember that there has to more to the story than the punch line at the end. There has to be a definite plot – a reason why the story is being told.
Characters and settings
Pick one main character and have everything and everyone else revolve around him or her, but keep the supporting cast to a minimum. Only include characters who are essential to the story’s outcome.
Don’t have your characters moving from place to place. Try to keep the action in one locality. You don’t have to go overboard with descriptions of people or places – you can hint at settings and only need to describe people if that aspect is important to the story. For example, if the story is about life in an old folks home, we need to know that, but we don’t need details on what each resident looks like.
The main event
Choose one critical moment in the main character’s life and show how this impacts on the outcome. Pick the setting, the pivotal moment, the consequence. This is what the story must focus on.
Open with a bang as close to the action as you can and provide the reader with a compelling reason to read on.
Show, don’t tell
I know, I know, you’re sick to death of reading this, but it is such an important aspect of all fiction, especially flash where you don’t have the available words to tell the reader everything they need to know. You have to show it using succinct dialogue and the characters’ actions and interaction.
Keep the back-story to the absolute minimum. If it doesn’t impact on the story, don’t put it in. If it is really is essential to the story (are you sure it is?), use as few words as possible to put us in the picture.
Let’s twist again
If your story has a twist (and many flash fiction stories do) keep the reveal as near to the end as possible. Once you’ve put it on the page – END THE STORY. Too often writers feel they need to explain or show what happens next. In a twist story, the twist is the end and there is nothing more to say.
Edit, edit, edit
You don’t have to count words as you write. It doesn’t matter if the story starts out far too long, that’s what the editing process is for. Cut the purple prose and remove unnecessary dialogue. Delete the adverbs and use stronger verbs.
Is it flash?
Not all stories are able to be condensed. If there is too much story to tell in 500 words, then all the editing in the world is not going to make it work. It is better to write something completely new than trying to cut a 2,000 word story into something it was never meant to be.
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Flash 500 Flash Fiction Competition
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