Hints that I have found useful when writing Flash Fiction.
Goal: To identify those traits that make a Flash Fiction story better.
What is Flash Fiction?
Flash Fiction is short story writing that is based on a prompt and must be completed within a relatively short time period. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the guidelines for WDC Daily Flash Fiction Challenge. These stories must be no longer than 300 words in length. The prompt is posted daily at midnight WDC time. The deadline for submitting a story is midnight of the day following the post of the prompt.
What are my qualifications?
I am certainly not a great writer, and this discussion is not meant to imply that if you are not doing it my way, then you are doing it wrong. I am simply putting down those things that my experience says work well when writing Flash Fiction. I have been a member of WDC since April 2008. During that time, I have entered over 300 Daily Flash Fiction Challenges with a win rate of about 65%.
I hope that someone out there finds the following helpful:
1. Grammar is important. I am terrible at grammar but I am certainly better than I was before WDC. Grammar problems distract from any story but tend to be more noticeable in Flash Fiction. Imagine having five misspelled words in a 500 page novel. Now imagine five misspelled words in a 300 word story. People who see grammar errors will often point them out to you. This is a good thing. It’s how we improve. Since Flash Fiction stories are short, they are read more often than longer stories so you get more feedback. Don’t be afraid to take risks with grammar. If you fear colons, then practice them here. Don’t write around them.
2. Let the story imply events. You have a tight limit on words so you cannot waste them explaining every detail. For example: “Bob saw the broken window and knew a robber was inside. He took out his gun and peered through the window. Seeing the robber, he took aim and fired. Being a mobster, Bob didn’t want to have to explain his gun to the police, so he decided to dump the body somewhere.” That was 52 words. Now the same story with fewer words: “Bob saw the robber through the window. His gun solved that problem. The trunk of his car handled the cleanup.” That was 20 words. Using fewer words often makes the reader use his imagination which can add to the story rather than take away from it.
3. Don’t let the prompts be the subject of your story. If the prompt was that your story must have a fishbowl in it, don’t write about how Susie went to the store and spent her day picking out the perfect fishbowl. Instead write about how Susie wanted to be an astronaut ever since she was young and had once got a fishbowl stuck on her head when she was pretending to be Neil Armstrong. The fishbowl was in the story, but it did not drive the storyline.
4. Think outside the box. Take risks. One recent prompt was to write about troublesome neighbors. My first thought is to write about some sort of conflict between the Smiths and the Garcias. I then read a story where it was told from the perspective of a sleepwalking cow that saw the farmer as her troublesome neighbor. It was great!
5. Try to put a twist at the end. This does not mean that every story has to be a who-done-it where the reader is trying to figure out what will happen. It just means that something special took place. This is an area that I think is important. First of all, a nice twist leaves the reader satisfied. On the downside, trying to come up with a twist can cause you to have writer’s block. My recommendation is not to worry about the twist until the story is half way through. This may sound like a bad idea but it works for me. It gets me into the story, the characters are there and, the situation is there. All I have left to do is wrap it up.
6. Write a first sentence that makes the reader want to read on. We all want to write a “Call me Ishmael.” Since that line has already been taken, we need to come up with something else. For example, start a story with “I remember exactly what I was doing the day the Moon broke in half.” This type of line is not for everyone, but it works for me. I want to see how the Moon actually broke in half and what impact that had on everyone. I don’t need to form an entire story in my head to write this first line. As a matter of fact, after a line like that, the rest of the story comes to you in a flood.
7. Put little surprises in the story. I just wrote a story about a mobster. He kept his gun in the refrigerator salad crisper behind a plastic bag of Arugula. It’s a surprise because this is not the type of behavior one would expect from a mobster. I liked it because it helps to define my character and the scene he is in. It also makes the reader continue in search of other little surprises.
8. Practice your genres. These stories take very little time and generate a lot of helpful feedback. I once fancied myself as a Sci-Fi writer. I now find that I like to write stories about things that make me cry as well as things that make me laugh. I like to write about mobsters, and I like stories with crazy old people. I think kids are fun to write about, as is nostalgia. Flash Fiction is a great opportunity to stretch your writing legs and try things you might not normally think fit your style.
9. Ignore the word count until the story is written. You can’t do this completely, but you can allow yourself to go over the word limit by 25% or so. Go back afterward and take out those needless words. If you try to edit the count as you go along, you will find that you are restricting the story that needs to come out.
10. Don’t read the other entries for a prompt until after you have written your story. When I do this, I find myself getting discouraged. I think that I can’t write a story as good as the one that I just read. I also find it hard to come up with a story line completely unique now that I have read someone else’s take on the prompt.
11. Let the title of your story add to it. Don't give away too much but what you have is essentially free words to help tell the story. Words in the title don't count against you. The shorter the story, the more important this is (i.e Amazing 55 Word Contest).
12. Make use of contractions and compound words to keep your overall word-count low. (Thanks to Melanie of WDC for this last hint)
13. Do not try to squeeze a novel into 300 words. Take a moment or setting and make it as rich as you can. Sure, I've eaten a whole chicken before. Who hasn't? But it is not nearly as satisfying as an expertly prepared 8 oz. portion.
Note on point 3: Several people have made comments about point number three. While they agree that the prompt should not necessarily be the subject of the story, they also feel that it needs to be an integral part of the story. For example, if a fishbowl is the prompt, you should do more than just say "she looked around the apartment and saw a fishbowl and a chair and a bald cat." The challenge should be to get the prompt in the story in an important way, but not in a way that appears too obvious. My rule of thumb on this is that a reader should not be able to read my story and guess what the prompt is.
Note on updates: I add to this from time to time as new observations hit me. I also like to add advice from others from time to time. Please feel free to check back in for updates.
I hope you find this helpful. I invite you to visit my blog "View From the Cheap Seats" at http://www.jamesdillingham.com