Writing Flash Fiction: A Story Analysis
Before beginning the post proper, I'd like to announce a new project that will be directly relevant to the topic:
This is a reading of "Starless Night," my first professional-rated sale, published in Nature: Futures in March 2018. I plan to do more videos on my own stories as well as general writing advice and a few other things, but today "Starless Night" is taking center stage, so you should be familiar with it. I'd appreciate it if you listened to the reading (I can really use the views), but it is an analysis of writing so you can - and should - read the story here.
In retrospect, I'm surprised that this story got picked up. There are a lot of things I don't like about it - it's a bit dialogue-heavy up front, there's some repetition in the descriptive sections, and even at 900 words it feels like I could have trimmed it a little. All of that may be explained by the Nature's strict publication standards, which allow stories of only 850-950 words. I wrote this piece with Nature in mind, and it's about 200 words longer than most of my flash pieces.
I don't want to be too negative, though. After all, "Starless Night" was a success - it sold for a good amount of money and very quickly, spending just four days in the queue, and was only rejected once before that. So instead, let's look at what I did well.
Going back to our fundamentals of flash fiction, what we have in "Starless Night" is a story with very simple elements. Without a lot of room for complex plots or establishing voice, we go with something more essential. We have one speaking character in a small, self-contained setting and a basic survival plot in which the protagonist is failing. Because it's science fiction, we also have an alien make an appearance. Between the alien and the astronaut, this is a classic spec story. That's important - while flash fiction can be very experimental, it's good to root it in something archetypal.
The inspiration for this story was the book Exoplanets by Michael Summers and James Trefil. One chapter concerns rogue planets, those that are "starless" in that they orbit galactic central point instead of a star. In this chapter, the authors speculate on what kind of life could inhabit such a planet and what extreme adaptations it would need to have in order to endure the intense cold and radiation on the surface.
By the way, this does mean that the alien - which some people I spoke with overlooked - is the point of the story. "Starless Night" is not intended to be some kind of argument against manned space exploration. I have been accused of this, and that's wrong. I just needed a human to land on a rogue planet to discover the alien, and realistically there's no way to get her back. So she dies, and in dying laments that she agreed to the mission in the first place, which is not my argument (Do we really need to go through the whole "Not every character in a work of fiction is a mouthpiece for the author" thing again?).
Sidenote on that: If you write and publish anything (and science fiction seems to be especially vulnerable to this), people will read their own politics into it. There's really nothing you can do to stop people from misinterpreting you, so just roll with it as best as you can.
The concept of space exploration is very archetypal for science fiction, and I think that did help things along. There aren't a lot of space exploration stories right now - spec markets really trend toward stories about AI, social psychology and Internet trends of the Future! - and that makes stories like "Starless Night" stand out. Writers are prone to chasing trends, and not without cause - those trends are driven by what editors like, and editors are your actual audience, so writing for them is sensible to a point. The problem is that if, say, "scourge of social media" stories are perceived as popular, the market quickly reaches its saturation point. If you are doing spec, you might be better served if you focus on SFF standards and put your own twist on them.
The other takeaway is simplicity. Note how much of the story is in the background here. There's some sort of program that the protagonist mentions, but all we need to know is that this program is the reason she's currently freezing to death on a rogue planet. A longer story could (and should) have more details, but we don't need that. We only need enough information to establish the basics - the who, what, when, where and why (I suppose we don't know the "when," but one can infer that it's in the future). Everything else you trim out, and this is how you get a complete story in under 1000 words.