Writing Effective Flash Fiction
What makes a story flash fiction?
Flash fiction is short.
. . . Whether a piece qualifies as flash fiction on word count depends on who you ask. Everybody has their own opinion of what short means. Some of the popular fixed lengths for flash fiction have been 55, 100, and 300 words. Some people go as high as 1000 words.
Sometimes it seems like the limited word count is the only part of the definition of flash fiction that gets considered. However, there are other, more important considerations in the definition. After all, other types of writing besides flash fiction are short.
Flash fiction is a story -- it has a plot and character development related to the character's efforts to solve a problem: something changes.
. . . It is not a vignette or a slice of life.
Flash fiction is vivid and shows what happens using precise details.
. . . It is not a story summary that tells.
Flash fiction uses wording that has been pared down to the absolute essentials.
. . . It is not wordy. It has no filler.
Some flash fiction has nameless characters.
. . . This is a separate factor and more of a style choice to be in the experimental category. Using names doesn't make the piece longer, can be necessary for clarity, and the choice of name can contribute information.
When people try to write flash fiction, the most common mistake is that the piece lacks a plot and character development.
How do you know whether your story has a plot and character development?
It can help to have something to compare it to, like a yardstick, to see whether it measures up.
Consider this basic three-part story structure.
The main character suddenly has a problem.
He tries one thing to solve it and it doesn't work.
He tries another thing to solve it, and that makes things even worse.
The third time he tries, he has either learned something from his failures or obtained something from them, which makes it possible for him either to succeed or to choose a different outcome (the problem gets resolved in a negative but satisfactory way).
As stories get shorter, they start later in the story structure and cover a narrower interval around the turning point. For the shorter word counts, that may mean that the first and second tries are implied or mentioned rather than shown. Any necessary backstory is usually implied or integrated like description. The conflict gets resolved, but the results are usually implied.
Even though the story structure is condensed and some of it might be implied and not actually on the page, the reader still needs to be able to identify the parts of the story. Things need to happen. The character needs to act to solve his own problem, and he needs to change and evolve in response to trying to deal with that problem. The story ending needs to match the problem it sets up in the beginning.
To do this with showing, you have to pick the few details that show the most information. They'll probably be actions. You also have to pick the few words that pack the most punch. Use strong, specific words rather than weak, generic, or general ones, and edit out the filler. (Using a pronoun instead of a name is one way of being generic.)
Another way to check whether all the parts of a story are present is to use the Gary Provost Paragraph as a checklist. It describes the plot 90% of the time.
Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.
If you can write an equivalent paragraph with the pertinent details from your flash fiction -- from what's on the page, not what's in your head -- then you've probably got a story in your flash fiction.
If you can't, the gaps in your paragraph show you what's missing.