Ten Top Tips For Writing Flash Fiction

Wanna write a stonking great piece of flash fiction but need some pointers? Need to refine your flash skills and build up the courage to submit something to a competition or lit mag? Not entirely sure what flash fiction actually is?

Well, lucky for you, our resident flashionado, Kathy Hoyle (lovingly nicknamed Flashy Kathy by our weekly flash challenge participants), is here to help…

FLASHY KATHY’S TOP TEN TIPS FOR WRITING FLASH FICTION

1. Read flash

Read, read, read. As much as you can! There’s a HUGE amount of brilliant flash fiction available online absolutely free. Some good places to start are Reflex Fiction, Ellipsis, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and the Bath Flash Fiction anthologies. And right here at writers HQ, you can read all our past flash competition winners and shortlisters in our archives. If you can afford to (because it’s really worthwhile to support lit journals), get some anthologies to give you an idea about the sheer breadth of this genre. Read far and wide to find out what you like, what you don’t like, and what YOU want to write.

2. Remember, flash fiction is not poetry

Your story must have a narrative arc with resolution and movement. Just like any short story, in flash, something MUST have shifted to make things different at the end than at the beginning. To quote the fabulous Nancy Stohlman: ‘If plot, storytelling, tension, narrative arc – all of those things – are the driving force behind your piece, then you can call it flash fiction. If plot is not central, so for example if you’ve written a vignette, extract, character study, or simply set a scene without movement, then it’s more likely a prose poem.’

3. Titles count

So make them count! In such a short piece, your title can have a huge impact on the context and interpretation of your story. Use titles to explain plot points, character flaws, expand your theme or metaphors. Subvert expectations or offer a teaser of what’s to come. Don’t be afraid to go LONG or WEIRD with your titles. Put as much thought into your title as your actual flash story.

4. Brevity is key

In flash, you might only have 500 words to play with, so edit out backstory, pare down your dialogue, cut adverbs, make every single word count. Get right down to the sentence/word level and make everything earn its place on the page. Flash fiction has a tone and urgency that is different to other forms, think about each individual sentence. Practice brevity by writing an entire flash piece without using ANY adjectives or pick out your best five sentences and then ask yourself, do I actually NEED what’s left?

5. Be honest

Write things that matter to you. The reader needs to feel your work. Emotional resonance is key. Go to the places you don’t want to visit and write about that. Write what you know, deeply. Be brave. smack us round the face with an emotional punch. This is why flash is often dark. But you can also use humour to temper the darkness – a wry voice is often great!

6. Choose your structure carefully

Generally, try to stick to one POV for flash. This helps to accentuate voice, which is vital. We are getting a tiny glimpse into someone’s life; a moment, like a door that’s ajar; you peep in for a second before the door is slammed shut. We don’t need a heap of exposition, backstory, a cast of characters, or a long piece of dialogue… Shine the torch, then switch it off.

7. Cliché and sentimentality are your enemies.

We all fall back on familiar tropes in our writing, but with flash, your work needs to have that something extra to stand out. if you use a familiar cliché or metaphor, strike it out and try something new. For example, don’t describe the past using an old photograph as a device – that’s been done to death – think of a different way, or something that’s specific to you. Avoid sentimentality! That doesn’t mean your writing should be cold, but show us through the narrator, through tiny details, how they’re feeling. Be poignant but avoid overdramatising by using shortcuts. Avoid those ‘sobs’ and ‘cries of heartache’ and make your piece as emotionally complex as WE are as humans.

8. Be specific with your language

Details are important. Don’t just tell us ‘she was a miserable woman’, describe how and why – through character description and behaviour. Don’t just say ‘tree’, tell us what kind, how it smells and feels and moves in the wind. Don’t mix your metaphors and imagery (unless you’re being really clever about it). Try to stick to one central idea or theme for each piece, weave it through, and keep bringing the reader back to that nugget of truth at its core.

9. Edit, edit, then edit some more

Flash should be 1/3 writing the piece and 2/3 editing. Leave it to simmer for as long as you can. At least a month! Then go back with fresh eyes. Get feedback and critique form beta readers. Send it out and cross your fingers for responses from editors and publishers. Often, they will give you a few lines of advice or tell you what they liked and what didn’t quite work. Don’t be afraid to SHARE YOUR WORK. Don’t be precious about it. It will improve with feedback. And the more critique you give, the better you’ll be at spotting issues in your own writing. Learn from your fellow writers and spread the flashy love. (Flash Face Off* is the perfect opportunity for this, FYI)

10. Break all the rules!

Ignore all the above, if you want to. Because once you know the rules, you’re free to break them! Don’t be afraid to get weird. Be funny. Play with structure. Write letters, shopping lists, diary entries, text messages, instruction booklets, recipes. Mess with POV, language, go outside of your comfort zone, experiment. And most of all, have fun! Happy flashing…

*What the heck is Flash Face Off?

Well, way back in April, a gazillion, shazillion eons ago, we launched our weekly flash fiction challenge, Flash Face Off, and since then it’s become something of a major event here at Writers’ HQ. Each week our amazing WHQers post up a metric tonne of words, exchange feedback, and cheer one another on at our online live readings every Friday. It’s a brilliant way to practice your short fiction skills, get a weekly dose of inspiration, and build up a team of writing buddies – so if you haven’t joined in yet, check it out!

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