Flash Fiction: A Primer
First and foremost, you read fiction to have a good time, and you write it to give others a good time. How do you do this? By creating characters your reader cares about, characters who have gripping problems, characters who yearn for something. You must make your characters struggle against someone or something that stands in their way; that is to say you must develop some kind of plot. On top of this, you need to delight your reader with a vivid writing style, concise but stunning description, and maybe some revealing dialogue. In flash fiction, you try to make your story surge ahead in very few words. As flash fiction writer and editor Randall Brown observes, a writer has to see “the constriction of time and space as a need for urgency and profundity.”
I am defining flash fiction as stories that range from about 300 to 1000 words. That said, other critics and writers say a work of flash fiction can be 6 words or 25 words or 100 words. I feel that these lengths prevent the writer from developing the protagonist’s personality, so let’s think in terms of 300 to 1000 words.
In your stories, you will practice the six key elements of the craft of fiction: character, plot, dialogue, point of view, setting, and style. Of these, the most important are character and plot. The presence of character development and plot are what distinguish flash fiction from prose poetry or slice-of-life essays.
Character: To build a story, you need to create a character with a motive, a driving desire, or a problem he needs to solve. As the English novelist and critic Martin Amis says, “Motive tends to provide coherence, and fiction needs things that cohere.” Your character’s motive can be minor, for example, the need to find a lost key; or major, for example, the need to make amends with a loved one. The motive can be rational or irrational, explicit or implicit, and, it usually is disclosed early in the story. Your main character, or protagonist, that is, the one who struggles for something, should have a mix of positive and negative traits, and the reader needs to be able to sympathize with the protagonist, even if she is a flawed person. As the story moves along, reveal more and more about your main character. Your main character can end up achieving her goal, failing at her goal, still in pursuit of the goal, or uncertain if she has achieved her goal.
Your protagonist will have an antagonist who causes a problem for him or who tries to prevent the protagonist from achieving his goal. Your antagonist can be a person, an element of nature, society, or even the protagonist himself. After all, sometimes a person is his own worst enemy. As with the protagonist, the antagonist should have a mix of good and bad traits.
Plot: A short story, especially a flash fiction story, needs to progress through time efficiently and meaningfully. To make this happen, you need to create episodes of cause and effect, incident and psychology, or tension and relief. The antagonist puts an obstacle in front of the main character, and, as the main character deals with that obstacle, he reveals more about what he’s made of: his strengths, weaknesses, inner conflicts, ideas, and observations. These cause/effect, incident/psychology, or tension/relief episodes comprise the action of the story. Your story’s action can be physical, but it is just as likely to be mental.
Most fiction writers say that a story begins with the introduction of or hint at the main character’s desire or problem. The writer then builds dramatic tension as the antagonist seeks to thwart the main character. Life does not love trouble, but literature loves trouble. You need to make things tough for your main character. At the middle or three-quarters of the way into the story, your dramatic tension should mount to a crisis point. The crisis may be a physical confrontation or a psychological crisis, such as a moment of sudden realization (an epiphany). After the crisis, a period of falling action ensues. This should proceed logically from the rest of the story. In some stories, the falling action is as long as the rising action; in other stories it is very brief. At the very end, you will have the final footfall of your story. This last step may be a denouement (or tying up of loose ends), a zoom into the future, an epiphany at the end, a moment of description, a meditation by the narrator or one of the characters, or any last step you decide to create. This all has to happen very concisely in flash fiction. It’s a particular challenge for the 300-word story.
Dialogue: Dialogue is a very effective means of revealing character and propelling action. You should not waste dialogue on such social formalities as, “Hi, how are you?” Unless the answer to that provides a window into a character’s problems or desires. Characters who speak can be truthful; they can lie; they can antagonize or comfort. Make your dialogue earn its space in your story.
Point of View: Point of view (POV) is one of the most mysterious elements of fiction.
1. You may use the first-person POV in your story. This usually involves having your main character tell his story from his perspective using “I.” “The thing I wanted most of all was a glass of water.” Your first-person narrator may be reliable or unreliable.
2. You might experiment with second-person POV, in which your narrator or your main character, addressing himself or the reader, tells the story through the use of “you.” “You knew it was wrong to call her, but you did anyway.”
3. Third-person POV includes a wide range of storytelling options. You may use a distant storytelling voice that does not allow access to a character’s thoughts. Or you may use a more interior third-person POV that allows you to delve very deeply or somewhat deeply into the character’s psyche. In third-person POV, you will use “he” or “she” or the character’s name to narrate action and explore the character’s thoughts. In a flash fiction piece, it would be simplest to choose one point-of-view character only. (Grace Paley, however, in “Samuel” uses a global omniscient POV.) You may choose to reveal your POV character’s thoughts in her style of speech or your style of speech. Here’s an example of close third-person POV narration from Bruce Holland Rogers’s “Dinosaur.” The author conveys the young boy’s thoughts: “Since he was not a dinosaur, he thought for a time that he might be a pirate.”
Experiment with POV. You may first write your story in third-person, but later you may decide it works best in first person. In a piece of flash fiction, be consistent with POV. Don’t shift from first to second, for example, in a single story.
Setting: Does your story take place in a magical kingdom far far away? In the Midwest? In a forest? On a college campus? In a hospital or a family home? Let your reader know where your story is taking place.
Style: This is a broad category that includes descriptive language (sensory imagery, figures of speech), the choice of everyday speech or more intellectual speech, sentence variety, and much more. Rhythm matters, so build your story with a mix of short and long sentences. Trim out repetitive and filler words and phrases. That advice goes for all writing, but it especially important in flash fiction where brevity is key and where every sentence must move the story further. And, of course, proofread.
Flash fiction is burgeoning in our era of sound bites, tweeting, texting, and other short forms of communication. I wish you luck and creative success as you explore this increasingly popular form of the short story.
Amis, Martin. “Laureate of Terror: Don DeLillo’s Prophetic Soul.” The New Yorker, Nov. 21, 2011.
Brown, Randall. “Making Flash Count.” Ed. Tara L. Masih. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2009. 69-70
Paley, Grace. “Samuel.” Southeastern University. <http://www2.southeastern.edu/Academics/Faculty/scraig/paley.html>.
Rogers, Bruce Holland. “Dinosaur.” Flash Fiction Online. Feb. 2009. <http://www.flashfictiononline.com/f20090204-dinosaur-bruce-holland- rogers.html>.
Written by Lynn Levin