Writing Flash Fiction: 5 Broad Ideas to Get Started
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Short stories live and die on their concepts. Without a lot of room to build rounded characters, establish settings, or play with the reader's expectations, the writer is putting a lot of weight on the story's central idea. In flash fiction, the concept pretty much is the story. Remember, 1000 words is only about three pages, so that nice plot arc you've probably got affixed to the wall by your desk isn't going to fit.
The good news is that this extreme brevity can actually open up the form to new ideas - a concept too thin, too narrow, too unusual for a 3000-word story might be just right for an 800-word story. The bad news is that flash markets can be picky, and it's not always easy to pin down what they want. Some flash markets say that they don't want "vignettes" without defining the term. Some markets insist that flash still be a "complete story" with a three-act structure...somehow.
A passage from the soon-to-be-published "Swarm Mechanics."
Developing Flash Fiction Ideas
Unfortunately, the experimental nature of flash fiction means that you can never be entirely sure what any given market wants to see, but there are some general trends at play. Here are five general types of flash fiction you'll see in the field.
I'll provide some examples of my own works here - some from the Cavalcade of Rejection, but others that actually made it to print.
The most common form of flash fiction is the simplest - a short story, with all the elements you'd expect from a short story, but...shorter. It sounds easy, but the abbreviated story can be a trial, especially when one is writing for a speculative market. Science fiction and fantasy thrive on gigantic worlds, but the three page limit doesn't leave a lot of room for worldbuilding.
So how do you cram a "complete story" into 1000 words? We'll get to that later - most of this series will be focused on this type of flash - but for now, recall the teachings of Kurt Vonnegut. Remember Rule 5 - "Start as close to the end as possible?" This should be the mantra for all writers of flash fiction. You can allude to the rest of the story, but you're beginning at the very end.
Examples: "Maxie," "Starless Night"
The personal experience is maybe the most popular form of story right now. Spare me all the "personal essays are dead" nonsense - one could go quite mad trying to catalog all of the blogs, Subreddits, Twitter feeds, podcasts, webcomics, YouTube channels, and miscellaneous sites dedicated to people telling questionable, often stolen stories allegedly about their own lives. People love these things and always will.
Maybe you've attended or participated in a storytelling event - one of those things where people from the audience get four or five minutes to relay an interesting anecdote. If you've done this, write down what you said and odds are you'll have a flash fiction piece. An anecdote that's five minutes long when spoken aloud will be about 600-1000 words when written out.
The anecdote-as-flash approach is great for markets dealing in realistic stories, but be careful - lots and lots of people are doing this, so don't even try it unless you are confident in your ability to best a thousand other people in a storytelling contest.
Example: "I Swear I Saw the Whole Thing" (Yes, it's about people who walk through walls, but it's still written in this same style)
Some of you - the ones with a media background - may have taken note when I alluded to an 800-word piece. 800 words is the length of a typical magazine column, and perhaps this gave you some ideas. If so, then you're one step ahead of me.
Flash fiction is a great form for epistolary works - those presented as some form of correspondence. 1000 words is obviously far too short for a traditional exchange-of-letters or diary frame, but there are many forms of communication that fit nicely into this space. Op-ed columns, advisories, advertisements, press releases, and newsletters will all work, but really think it out and you can come up with more.
Fair warning - this style isn't for every market. Some flash markets may not consider epistolary works to be "complete stories," while others just plain don't appreciate them. The epistolary style seems to work best for humor and (to a lesser extent) horror, and should be saved for markets that appreciate those.
Example: "Diplomatic Etiquette and the Alien Menace"
One of my personal favorite types of flash fiction is nothing more than two characters in a room, hashing out some conflict or trying to solve some common problem. Well-written dialogue is a very efficient means of writing that can communicate several things at once - one sentence can give exposition while also exhibiting a character's demeanor.
Those of you with a more cinematic or theatrical mind might try to approach flash fiction as though you were writing a script for a very short play. If you're judicious with your action tags, you can work in a good 15-20 lines of dialogue, and that's plenty. You're not literally writing a short script, though, so remember to include all the details!
And now, the bad news - this form is really unpopular right now. I've mentioned before that we're currently in this strange moment in which editors hate dialogue as a concept, preferring to uplift the tales of Proust-wannabes whose characters will sit and think about things, but never say or do anything. Sadly, flash is not exempt - if anything, it's worse.
Example: "The Baleful Box" (In publication limbo for the last two years - link will be added when/if it is finally public)
Down to the nitty-gritty - how do you develop character, setting and plot in barely three pages? For many flash authors, the answer is simple - don't have any of those things. Some flash pieces aren't "stories" in the conventional sense, more just random sequences of imagery. The result is something like a long poem with no line breaks or discernible form. This is popular in those markets that hold themselves up as more "literary" than their kin.
In case you couldn't read between the lines there, I don't like these "stories," but many editors are quite enamored with them. Don't ask me how this fits in with the "must be a complete story" thing - I couldn't tell you. All I can tell you is that while flash fiction rests on its concepts, one valid approach is to omit the concept while challenging the reader to search his own experiences to find the true concept. I don't believe a word of that, but you might find someone who does.
Hopefully you already have a few ideas, and are ready to start right now. Next time, we'll discuss editing and figure out what to do with those stories that don't quite fit - those that are too long or too short.