“The best flash fiction changes my life. Full stop. If a story leaves me with wonder, dread, hope, or disgust, then it has done its work.”
What is flash fiction? At bare minimum, flash fiction is a story under 1,000 words (1,250 if you’re pushing it). But great flash fiction does so much more
A piece of great flash fiction is writing that captures the ambiguous and interesting, tells a “complete” story, and uses character-based conflict, all while being under 1,000 words. Of course, take these requirements with your own grains of salt. Flash fiction can be a very experimental form. It doesn’t have to be any of these things; flash is more about the feeling you’re left with.
The best flash fiction changes my life. Full stop. If a story leaves me with wonder, dread, hope, or disgust, then it has done its work. These feelings can be caused through resonance.
Every word counts in a work as short as this. Every word should pull its weight. “He ran quickly across the room to the love of his life” turns into “he ran to his love.” Readers are smart, they can fill in spaces. Flash is as much about what isn’t there as what is.
In a short piece, a writer can’t waste time being cliché. Phrases like “the love of his life” are ones you’ve heard before, and — without realizing — you’ll skim right over it. More of these cliché phrases include tough as nails, light as a feather, or comparing someone’s eyes to the ocean. When we rely on these phrases, we risk losing the reader’s attention. Why would they waste time reading something they already know?
You might worry that you can’t say everything you want to in this form. Something that Nathan Leslie writes in the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction is that flash fiction performs ambiguity well. It’s meant to be sketchy. Ambiguity, even confusion at first read, isn’t something to avoid. Welcome the ambiguous! Ambiguity creates freedom and intrigue and, if done well, makes the reader think about a piece after they’ve finished it.
That’s the intention of flash fiction, to be memorable, despite its restrictions. A flash piece needs to burn brightly in your reader’s mind because it is so brief.
To burn brightly, flash fiction should be interesting to read. It should be new! From the Rose Metal Press, Jennifer Pieroni coined the term (another cliché phrase!) “smart surprise.” I think this is a perfect way to describe what words should do in flash. Adjectives and comparisons should be smart, fresh, interesting to read. Flash fiction can’t waste time on being sappy, cheesy, or mushy. Be smart! Be exciting! Fast! Pieroni notes that this “smart surprise” can and should be everywhere in a piece, and it can be achieved through language and image, but I go further to say that action plays a role too.
In “Crazy Glue” by Etgar Kerat, a wife buys crazy glue and her husband goes to work. The husband has a phone call, and we discover he’s started an affair. While he was away, the wife has stuck everything in her and her husband’s house down, ending with herself. The husband comes home and looks up to find his wife hanging upside-down from the ceiling. She has glued herself there, and her husband climbs on a stack of books to reach her. He kisses her, but another surprise awaits. She has put glue on her lips, and the two hang there. “Crazy Glue” shows us that smart surprise can be within the actions or plot of a story.
“Crazy Glue” performs ambiguity well too. At the end, we don’t know what will become of the husband and wife, whether their relationship will improve or not, or if they will ever get down from the ceiling. When I first read “Crazy Glue”, I was taken completely off-guard by the ending. It made me re-examine every detail of the story. And that’s why it’s one of my favorite pieces of flash fiction.
Even though “Crazy Glue” literally leaves us hanging with an ambiguous ending, it feels complete because it changes our view of the characters. In order for flash fiction to feel “complete,” it needs to do one of two things.
1) It must change the level of tension: the character(s) must be in a different (emotional or literal) place from the beginning of the story. Or...
2) The story must change our perception of the characters.
“Crazy Glue” does the latter. There’s no resolution of conflict, no explosive argument or plans for divorce. Nothing really happens in “Crazy Glue”, and that’s the point. We’re interested in the characters and their relationships. We’re interested in the now. Flash fiction is character-based instead of plot-based.
Oh, and obviously flash fiction should be fast! Unlike short stories or novels, flash fiction relies on implication instead of telling. Flash fiction doesn’t have words to waste. Earlier I mentioned that flash is under 1,000 words, but pieces are regularly shorter at less than 500 or 250 words. There’s even a genre of six-word stories. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” — Ernest Hemmingway.
But all this means nothing if your piece doesn’t resonate. It is the most important goal of flash fiction. If the piece makes you feel nothing, then it has failed. A piece that you don’t remember is the same as having never read it at all. Resonance can be created by subverting expectations, cleverly using an image or object, or a title that changes meaning. Make your reader feel something, and you’re halfway there.
An advantage of this genre is that you can always try another draft, or write something for another prompt. With pieces so short, you might find yourself writing more than a few. And try to have fun. Be edgy, be experimental. Turn your grocery list into a story. With that, I wish you the best of luck writing flash fiction.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.