Flash Fiction Craft Talk

Flash fiction is an extremely short story. It can be as long as two-thousand words or short as four words. Maybe shorter if you can pull it off. Before we talk more about flash fiction, let’s talk about fiction, why do we read it, what it takes to write it.

Why do we read fiction?

To feel. To experience. To be interested.

Fiction is more than just some made up words, right? It needs to have story. Would you agree? What is in a regular fiction story?

Conflict. Great characters. Rising Action. Climax. Resolution.

In a story we need to set the scene or multiple scenes. Build all our characters. Define their relationships to each other. Tell our reader what is at stake. Let the 

So we’ve established that fiction should make us feel, keep our interest, be an experience, have great characters that our built up with defined relationships in a well described setting, or multiple settings. There should be rising action, a climax where the good guys win, and a resolution to let us know that brighter days are ahead for our heroes.

Well, in flash fiction we don’t have time or room for all of that. 

What are the essentials?

Story? Wouldn’t you agree that even flash fiction should have a story? If not, why would we read it? So even if we are writing flash fiction, we need to make sure there is a story because if we don’t, who will read it?  

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if they’re not there they need to be there. We need to be able to imagine the story.

There’s a story about Hemingway told by Peter Miller:

“More than thirty years ago, at the beginning of my career, I had lunch with a well-established newspaper syndicator who told me the following story: Ernest Hemingway was lunching at the Algonquin, sitting at the famous “round table” with several writers, claiming he could write a six-word-long short story. The other writers balked. Hemingway told them to ante up ten dollars each. If he was wrong, he would match it; if he was right, he would keep the pot. He quickly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around. The words were: ‘For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn.’ Papa won the bet: His short story was complete. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end!”

Let’s look at that again:

“For sale; baby shoes, never worn.” What is the story here?

Hemingway is the king of brevity. Let’s look at his rules on writing. Maybe they can help us. After we look at them, we’ll look at some other six word stories and see if they work or not.

  • Hemingway’s Rules:
    • Use short sentences
    • Use short first paragraphs
    • Use vigorous English
    • Avoid the use of adjectives
    • Eliminate every superfluous word

6 word story examples:

Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.

– William Shatner

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?

– Eileen Gunn

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.

– Joss Whedon

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.

– Margaret Atwood

His penis snapped off; he’s pregnant!

– Rudy Rucker

From torched skyscrapers, men grew wings.

– Gregory Maguire

 

Wasted day. Wasted life. Dessert, please.

– Steven Meretzky

It cost too much, staying human.

– Bruce Sterling

I’m your future, child. Don’t cry.

– Stephen Baxter

I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ?

– Neil Gaiman

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.

– Orson Scott Card

We went solar; sun went nova.

– Ken MacLeod

TIME MACHINE REACHES FUTURE!!! … nobody there …

– Harry Harrison

Easy. Just touch the match to

– Ursula K. Le Guin

New genes demand expression – third eye.

– Greg Bear

Epitaph: He shouldn’t have fed it.

– Brian Herbert

Heaven falls. Details at eleven.

– Robert Jordan

whorl. Help! I’m caught in a time

– Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel

Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back.

– David Brin

Let’s write our own 6 word story:

Share them

Gertrude Stein who once wrote a 4 word short story titled “Longer”

“She stayed away longer.”

Now we’re going to write a longer flash fiction story. But before we do, let’s look at some rules set by another writer really into making their words work: Elmore Leonard.

Elmore Leonard says:

“Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.”

“Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.”

“Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.”

“Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language.”

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”

“If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

So we know we need story in our flash fiction, and now we have the luxury of doing exactly that with more than six words. What’s the first step?

Here, from an article in the Guardian: David Gaffney writes:

How to write flash fiction

  1. Start in the middle.

You don’t have time in this very short form to set scenes and build character.

  1. Don’t use too many characters.

You won’t have time to describe your characters when you’re writing ultra-short. Even a name may not be useful in a micro-story unless it conveys a lot of additional story information or saves you words elsewhere.

  1. Make sure the ending isn’t at the end.

In micro-fiction there’s a danger that much of the engagement with the story takes place when the reader has stopped reading. To avoid this, place the denouement in the middle of the story, allowing us time, as the rest of the text spins out, to consider the situation along with the narrator, and ruminate on the decisions his characters have taken. If you’re not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or “pull back to reveal” endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel – the drum roll and cymbal crash. Avoid this by giving us almost all the information we need in the first few lines, using the next few paragraphs to take us on a journey below the surface.

  1. Sweat your title.

Make it work for a living.

  1. Make your last line ring like a bell.

The last line is not the ending – we had that in the middle, remember – but it should leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the story but rather take us into a new place; a place where we can continue to think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant. A story that gives itself up in the last line is no story at all, and after reading a piece of good micro-fiction we should be struggling to understand it, and, in this way, will grow to love it as a beautiful enigma. And this is also another of the dangers of micro-fiction; micro-stories can be too rich and offer too much emotion in a powerful one-off injection, overwhelming the reader, flooding the mind. A few micro-shorts now and again will amaze and delight – one after another and you feel like you’ve been run over by a lorry full of fridges.

  1. Write long, then go short.

Create a lump of stone from which you chip out your story sculpture. Stories can live much more cheaply than you realise, with little deterioration in lifestyle. But do beware: writing micro-fiction is for some like holidaying in a caravan – the grill may well fold out to become an extra bed, but you wouldn’t sleep in a fold-out grill for the rest of your life.

Let’s start writing. Here are a few prompts:

Pick two of the following characters to use in your flash fiction:

wildland firefighterOld ManAttractive Young Adult Woman Doctor or Nurse Portrait Outside.Man 1Sean with Darcellesean and vetsunnamedseth14212218_10154429116958991_6757784733809145352_n14224958_10154418971963991_3187268370243105598_n13335705_10154143950113991_3579113928184772200_nhomeless vietnam vet76034-PH-Misc-1-Prints-011936800_10152114120243991_592546973_n5725637875_f33ff43857_o-750x499twins

 

Give these characters back stories:

Character #1

What is his/her name?

Where are they from?

What kind of childhood did they have?

What socioeconomic background do they come from?

Are they married? In love?

What job do they have now?

What is their dream?

Why aren’t they following their dream?

How is Character #2 keeping them from their dream?

Write for 10 minutes

Character #2

What is his/her name?

Where are they from?

What kind of childhood did they have?

What socioeconomic background do they come from?

Are they married? In love?

What job do they have now?

What is their dream?

Why aren’t they following their dream?

How is Character #1 keeping them from their dream?

Write for 10 minutes

Relationship Dynamics

Pick one of the following:

Character #1 was caught in a lie by character #2 but we all know that character #2 is an evil son of a bitch, but somehow they have the moral high ground.

Character #1 just found out that a family member they should love, but do not, has died and they are feeling guilty about not being upset. Character #2 is taking advantage of the situation to make Character #1 move even further from their dream

Character #1 has saved the life of a person in the last few weeks, but just yesterday that person committed a heinous crime. Character #2 is using this as an excuse to move Character #1 further away from their dream.

Write for 15-20 minutes

Setting

War torn desert town (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, et cetera)

A small mining town in Northern California evacuated because of the biggest wildland fire in fifty years approaching.

On a small fishing boat without a crew somewhere between Florida and Cuba. They are out of drinking water and food.

Rewrite it all and make the setting just as important as the other characters. Add a third character if you’d like. Don’t worry about word count right now.

Write for 15-20 minutes

Now, cut it down to as few words as you possible can.

Let’s share.