Flash fiction: how to write a great short story

Flash fiction reading and writing

Flash fiction has been called the writing of the next millennium, the key to the writing of the future. Whether you want to read flash fiction or try writing your own, this form of extreme short story can be as satisfying as a long read.

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Flash fiction is a popular form worldwide. In Latin America it’s called micro; in Denmark, kortprosa; in Bulgaria, mikro razkas. One thousand words is the usual cut-off point, with many stories often 300 words or less. It’s not just about the word count though. “Flash as a discrete form has to do something a traditionally longer story does not: it has to be just as satisfying in a smaller space. It has to hint at the larger picture where it cannot sustain lengthy descriptive passages,” says writer and editor Michelle Elvy. And we love this metaphorical comparison of different fictions from Argentinian novelist and short story writer Luiza de Venzuela: “I usually compare the novel to a mammal, be it wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish; the micro-story [flash fiction] to an insect, iridescent in the best cases.”

Demands of life today mean there is often little practicable time for reading. People can use mobile devices on the go to read short-short fictions. The best of these fictions, although very short, will linger long after reading.

Why write or read flash fiction? Because of the opportunities to experiment and make it appealing to writers of all ages, backgrounds and cultures. You can ‘whoosh’ out a first draft in a short amount of time, create a story with a traditional arc on a contemporary or historical theme, write a story as a list, as a mathematical formula, or in one sentence – whatever you like. The winner of the inaugural Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2015, William Davidson, wrote a 300-word piece, Radio Alarm, based on the narrator hearing the shipping forecast on waking up after a drunken evening out. This often hilarious story weaves around and takes meaning from the forecast.

What makes good flash fiction

Many would-be writers lose heart and never get to the end
 of novel or short-story drafts. It’s easy to finish a draft of very short fiction. Your piece won’t be right first time round but
 you can edit, or just write something new. In flash fiction, the beginning is very near the end and, along with the title, creating a good last sentence can leave you with a great sense 
of achievement. There’s also the extra fun of editing. We all know how good it feels in a house when we’ve ditched all 
the clutter. It’s the same with reducing words in a story: everything that’s left matters. There’s nothing you want to keep any more. Satisfaction.

Write a flash fiction story

Who’s who in the world of flash fiction

Tania Hershman (taniahershman.com) has done much to popularise the
 flash fiction form in the UK with her writing and teaching, and Dr Calum Kerr of Southampton University runs National Flash Fiction Day UK in mid June. Chester University is home to the Seaborne Library, compiled by Dr Peter Blair and Dr Ashley Chantler, directors of the International Flash Fiction Association (IFFA). This collection is the world’s largest archive of flash fiction anthologies, collections, magazines and secondary texts. At Chester, they also produce Flash: The International Short Story Magazine and have a small press publishing flash fiction authors.

In the US, along with Robert Shaphard and James Thomas, there are many proponents of flash fiction including Pamela Painter, Kathy Fish, Robert Vaughan, Meg Pokrass, Tara Masih, Stuart Dybek and Robert Olen Butler. There are also long-established literary magazines devoted to the form such as Smoke Long Quarterly, Wigleaf, Literary Orphans, Whiskey Paper and Bartleby Snopes. In New Zealand there’s Flash Frontier magazine and in Australia, Pure Slush, among others.

 Project Calm magazine collaborated with Ad Hoc Fiction 
in their weekly contest in response to the prompt word ‘calm’. The competition attracted a large number of entries from around the world. The three stories below are the best of those selected by readers and they demonstrate just how much writers can achieve in so few words and how one word can suggest entirely different themes. For more on flash fiction, go to www.bathflashfictionaward.com

EARLY ONE MORNING, by Kate Carne

A one-sentence, all-encompassing, ecstatic meditation.

The planet whisks through space, shifting this side toward its firewhite star, and down here in the forest, illumination sieves through the leaves, revealing a spider’s web, and then another, until the sedge displays all its silk couture, shining and trembling in the smallest hint of breeze, the last spike

of crocosmia splashing orange on the otherwise calm deep green, and a few (million) years back we crossed paths with
a meteor, knocking us off our upright axis and leaving us
at a jaunty tilt, in an instant creating seasons that are the rhythm of all that lives; leaves falling, blackberries ripening, salmon spawning, bears preparing for hibernation, so that all we can do is to stop and soak this up with all of our glowing senses, realising that we will never again be at this place in the spiraling of our milky galaxy as it dances towards the edge.

Kate Carne flash fiction short story

WATERSIDE BLUE, by Jacqueline Carter

A moving story about loss, but also a mystery tale…

She counted her heartbeats between each crack and roll of thunder, thumb pressed deep against her wrist to feel the pulse of blood, scurrying on. Hidden in the closet under a hedge row of clothes she was an old secret left in a shoe-box; a dusty paint can; a forgotten treasure.

Lightning flashed in angry sparks, lit up her hiding place; canted in through gaps in the door. Her father painted it last summer; waterside blue the tin said and made her think of steamy summer afternoons licking ice-cream and sitting on the hot driveway while sprinklers tick-tick-ticked and clouds idled past.

Summer had been the calm, winter brought the storms, shook out the leaves and made the roads sludgy slick. Her closet door began to peel away, waterside blue fading white but summer had gone and so had her painter.

Jacqueline Carter flash fiction short story

S O U N D L E S S, by Kandi Thorton

A sensuous, unsettling story – with a final twist.

She sat at the edge of the pier, swirling her feet in the dark water. The lake was still, a slate of black glass, without a crack or ripple. There was no sound. Only silence.

The lake called out to her, and she dove in with a soundless splash. Letting the water wash over her, surrounding her
in tranquility. Taking a deep breath, she dipped below the surface. She exhaled, watching the bubbles from her mouth rise to the surface.

She inhaled deeply, eagerly letting the calm water fill her. Sinking deeper into the depths, her soul felt light. Closing her eyes, taking in the peace, the silence, the serenity.

She turned the page.

Kandi Thorton flash fiction short story

Now it’s your turn

Eager to write your own flash fiction? Get started with these great resources.

Join a workshop

Take online courses with Kathy Fish (www.kathy-fish.com) and Word Tango (www.wordtango.com) in the US, or attend face- to-face workshops and live events. If you’re near Bath, UK, BathFlashFictionAwardruns regular flash fiction evenings. Readguides–TheRoseMetal Press (www.rosemetalpress.com) in the US has produced some excellent books on the form including a brilliant how-to guide with essays and exercises from many different writers. My Very End of the Universe, published by The Rose Metal Press, is a book on writing the novella-in-flash. Bath Flash Fiction Award (bathflashfictionaward.com) has a new contest for those who are interested in writing the flash-novella, a sequence of very short pieces with a narrative arc.

Enter a Flash fiction competition

Why not enter a few of the many worldwide competitions online? Read the curated
list of contests from Almond Press (www.dystopianstories.com) and Aerogramme Fiction (www.aerogrammestudio.com), which often list opportunities for flash fiction writers. Try a free competition to get you going. In the UK, Ad Hoc Fiction (adhocfiction.com), long listed in the Saboteur Awards (www.saboteurawards.org) last year, is a popular free, weekly competition open to 
all writers worldwide, where you can practise writing fiction up to 150 words, in response to a one-word prompt. A long list of each week’s stories is published on the site and the reading public votes for the winner, who gets a free entry to the Bath Flash Fiction Award (www.bathflashfictionaward.com) with its £1400 prize fund.

Ad Hoc Fictions

Ad Hoc Fiction is a user-friendly application. Using word-processor type features, you write straight on to a page on the site and the words are counted for you. The long- listed stories are published as an eBook with many features to aid ease of reading and it’s fascinating to read so many tiny tales and decide which ones ‘work’. It’s great for learning what to include, what to leave out, where to start and where to end.

Best Small Fictions

The 2016 edition of Best Small Fictions – stories gathered from around the world – is now published and is well worth a read, see www.goodreads.com.

Write flash fiction
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