Pinning down the key to flash fiction can be a slippery affair — as a genre, it’s vast, varied, often experimental, gloriously weird, and constantly re-inventing itself — and sometimes, when it comes down to what makes a piece of flash work, it’s more about a feeling than traditional storytelling techniques.
That said, there are two things that every good flash story needs, even if you’re going to bend the rules of fiction to breaking point!
First, we need some kind of narrative arc. Your story must do something. Something must shift or change, no matter how subtly. And your reader should be left with a sense of resolution. That doesn’t mean that you have to tie things up with a nice neat bow at the end, of course—it’s great to leave the reader with some lingering questions or a feeling of ambiguity so they keep thinking about your story long after they’ve finished it.
Too often, an undeveloped flash piece ends up as a vignette or character sketch or setting description without the narrative movement necessary to make it a story. So make sure there’s that all important shift in there somewhere: a realisation, a question, a reveal, a change in the character’s perspective. It can help to think of your story split into two parts: the before and the after. Or pick two opposing states or verbs to move between, eg: lost > found. (We use oppositional prompts in our weekly Flash Face Off challenge for exactly this reason!)
Think about the shape of your story and how it might inform or be influenced by this movement/change/shift. Perhaps your narrative arc is cyclical, ending right back where it began. Or perhaps it’s a list of some sort, using repetition or gradual progression to develop your idea. Or perhaps hinged in the middle—highlighting the difference between the before and the after.
Take (WHQ member!) Audrey Niven’s third place Flash500 story High Time for example. It’s structured like a hotel menu with a list of options for high tea, main meals, desserts and drinks, but each item is expanded into a string of vivid, sensory memories, revealing the splintered relationship between a mother and daughter.
The second thing every powerful piece of flash needs is emotional resonance. This means your story must contain some sort of human truth for your readers to connect with. Something honest and real, even if it’s hard to put your finger on. Remember: sometimes it all comes down to the feel of a piece. Sometimes you can’t articulate why you feel drawn to a story except that it just speaks to you.
A helpful technique here is to ask yourself two questions:
- What’s the story about?
- Yes, okay, but what is it really about?
Most stories have at least two threads interwoven into their fabric. There’s the surface story; the ‘action’ that takes place. And then there’s the metaphorical story, or the underlying subtext—the unspoken parts that lie within the white space.
Take another look at High Time. The story is ostensibly about a mother and daughter having a meal out at a hotel restaurant. But that’s not what the story’s really about. Beneath all that is a tense, layered history, revealing hints about both characters and their resentment-filled relationship, beautifully woven together with the itemisation of food and drink.
And finally, whatever structure, shape, and emotional resonance you explore in your story, make sure you add in a sense of urgency. We have so few words to work with when it comes to flash, you have to make every single one count. So get us to the point of conflict as quickly as possible and then get the heck out of there, preferably leaving us reeling.
Writing strong flash fiction is a real skill — but it’s also a lot of fun to learn. It’s quick, adaptable, open to experimentation and interpretation, and often just gloriously weird. So while these ‘rules’ can help you to get to grips with the process, it’s far more important to follow your gut, find that ‘feeling’ at the heart of your story, and enjoy the journey.
READ THIS: Need a spark of inspiration to get your flash story started? Check out our blog, Imagery in Flash, for some more tips and some great writing exercises.
DO THIS: Jump into our Beginner’s Guide to Flash Fiction course and learn more about the techniques and structures of flash!