Trying to fit a story into such a tightly compressed space can pose real difficulties for new flash writers (and even those who have been wrestling with the form for quite a while!).
Sometimes the writer tries to pack way too much in, the scope of the story is just too huge, maybe there are wayyyy too many characters, or the central focus is unclear. Maybe the language is beautiful but there is no plot—whatever the reason, the piece just doesn’t quite work.
So how do we get it right?
[A caveat: Anyone who tells you should be doing something in a certain way ought to be put firmly in the bin! So, these are general rules for you to break if you want to! These building blocks will help you construct a damn fine house—but of course, it’s always your house.]
Understanding Flash: What the hell exactly is it that I’m writing?!
We could spend weeks, months—years even—studying flash as a form. There are masterclasses on just flash titles alone! But on the face of it, flash is simply a story, like any other.
It can be a vignette or a prose poem or a hybrid of both, or a script dialogue, or a fragmented puzzle, or a hermit crab or a song lyric… but somewhere in amongst all of that, there should be a story!
That story can be quiet and gentle, momentous and powerful, heart-breaking, poignant, hilarious, political, sensual, confessional, and so on… as long as there is a narrative arc.
Sometimes the narrative arc is clear and precise, starkly obvious. Other times we have to search for it in white space or implied endings or underneath complex layers. But in great flash it IS always there.
The first thing to do when you write flash is trust the reader—trust them to fill in the gaps, to search for that narrative arc. You can write with brevity, right down to the bones, and readers WILL ‘get it’. Once you have that trust, you’re free to play and experiment, weave and whisper your stories onto the page in all kinds of unusual ways.
Vanessa Gebbie, in her essay, Fireworks and Burnt Toast, tells us exactly what to aim for:
“A firework. A single crack splits the air, a sizzle, a pause. A burst of stars, shimmering, falling in a fountain against the sky… then it is over. You blink. But no – it is not over. Imprinted on your retina is a fountain of fire.
THAT is what good flash ought to do. It should catch you as you turn away, hold you, and when you’ve finished reading, it should echo and resonate.’“
When you begin, ask yourself these three questions…
- What STORY do I want to write?
- How do I want to make my reader feel?
(These first two questions give you a clear picture of the plot and tone before you’ve even written a word.)
- How the hell will I do that?
This is of course, the starting point of your flash, but it may well be the very last thing you write, so don’t worry if you don’t have a title right away. Titles are so important because they are rarely included in the word count, yet they can add SOOOO much to your story.
They can help to establish narrative voice, setting, illuminate the layers in your story, present a startling image as a springboard for the rest of the story—all manner of things.
Work as hard on your title as you do on the rest of the story.
You want the reader to stay with you throughout, so you need to drag them into the story and then hold them there. How do we pull a reader in? Try using one of the following techniques…
- Use a curious, compelling narrative voice, perhaps one that invites the reader into their confidence by revealing an unusual internal conflict, or perhaps a voice that has a strange tone, idiom or dialect.
- Introduce a quirky character, maybe one that reveals a truth or a lie or is in some way different from ‘the norm’.
- Make a bold, dramatic, surreal or absurd statement that compels the reader to find out more.
As you begin, remember that from the get-go, your story must be full of urgency, so start at the point of conflict, don’t meander in with a set up or back story, just dive right in, or even better begin just a moment after the conflict.
[A quick note on urgency: This doesn’t mean the story has to be fast-paced, the urgency comes from the need to tell the story not the pace. You can tell the story quietly, with nuance, and with varying tension, pace and rhythm. In fact, it’s often better to let the reader pause and inhale, at certain points.]
The aim, in these opening lines, is to try and orient your reader—place, time, narrative voice and conflict—it’s a lot to pack into those first few sentences, but it can be done!
Here are some really great examples:
Audrey Niven ‘s On Rannoch Moor establishes setting and place with the title—we instantly know where we are, and the story hasn’t even begun yet!
In that very first paragraph we know there is a group, with plenty of kit—but look! No phone signal, an unsettling aside, foreshadowing what might happen – the conflict! We read the rest of the piece with a sense of urgency—compelled to find out exactly what happens.
In Bryan Garza’s Dog, Travis Cravey brilliantly piques the reader’s interest by forcing us to ask questions right from the start. What’s so special about this dog? Who is Bryan Garza and what is his role in this story?
We want to read on.
The whole story is a masterclass in creating tension, as Cravey deftly pulls the reader in and never lets go for a second.
What about those flabby middles, how do we tighten our metaphorical belts and keep the jam packed tightly into our flashy doughnuts?
To avoid a soggy middle, you need to think about ‘The shift’.
The shift is when the ‘something’ happens. The story changes somehow; the reader is made aware of something and forms a different understanding of the story, based on what the writer reveals.
The shift can actually come anywhere in the story. It can come right in the first paragraph or directly in the middle—often it’s around 2/3 of the way in—it can even be your end line. Where you place the shift can really change the pace and tone of the story, so have a think about what kind of impact you want to make. Do you want an instant shift then a response, or a tense build up with a climactic shift, or maybe a slow gentle burn of a story with a really subtle shift mid-way through?
Here, in the middle, ask more questions.
- Has the conflict been resolved or actualised?
- Has something begun to change for the main character?
- Have they realised something? Changed their point of view? Are they now in danger of being crushed by a giant octopus?
- How can I push the story forward here, in the middle section, to ensure that ‘something’ happens?
Flash is fantastic because unlike novels, the reader doesn’t always expect a neatly tied up ending, or a tah-dah reveal, they want to be left with a feeling. This gives flash writers a wonderful free rein when it comes to endings.
Stories can end cyclically, they can be implied, you can end with a striking image (either the same one as you started with or a contrasting one), the ending can subvert the readers expectations entirely, but always try to remember Vanessa Gebbie’s firework analogy, they should never be forgettable.
[TIP: Punchlines are often clunky and clichéd, so do try to avoid those.]
Let’s go back to our first examples and note how the stories end.
On Rannoch Moor has an implied ending. The reader cannot be sure what has happened to the group—they can only assume, from the clues that Niven has carefully placed, that it’s something terrible. The story maintains all its tension and impact by NOT revealing the end.
In Bryan’ Garza’s Dog, Travis Cravey’s young narrator sees his father in a different light. We would expect young Jimmy to feel safe and protected after his father threatens the bully, but Cravey cleverly subverts the readers expectations and leaves us with a boy wary and uncomfortable around a father he no longer recognises. A much more impactful ending.
Here is a story that employs everything we seek in flash – a fabulous title, a stunning opening paragraph, surreal, lyrical language, complex layers, tension, beautifully crafted characters and a lasting image and emotional impact that leaves the reader feeling utterly devasted.
From Our Bones Will Blossom Coral Reef Kingdoms by Timothy Boudreau.
From the surreal opening we are utterly hooked. The story is tightly packed with beautiful language and a real sense of underlying tension and urgency—notice how the characters dialogue and interactions belie the situation.
The ending is exquisite, powerful, painful and oh, how we hope there are mermaids. And see how the conflict itself, the ACTUAL happening, happens beyond the story. This holding back, the resistance to spelling out the crucial event, is what makes this piece absolutely perfect.
For more advice on the basics of flash, check out Kathy’s Top Ten Tips For Writing Flash Fiction!
And for a comprehensive deep dive into the world fo flash, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Flash Fiction course!