Writing Flash Fiction: Three Acts in a Tiny Word Count
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
If you've already tried your hand at writing flash fiction, then you've already learned something important: Cramming a full story into 1000 words is hard. Sure, writing the million-word novel takes a lot more time, but adding is usually easier than subtracting - and working with flash entails a lot of subtraction.
Today, we're going to revisit the basics of storytelling and figure out what needs to go to manage that tiny word count.
The Elements of Story
Flash fiction isn't any different than other types of short story - which, themselves, differ little from other forms of fiction. A story - fact or fiction - has a few basic elements: Characters, setting, conflict and plot, to name the most frequently invoked. The one distinction is that a short story usually has a limit on how much space one can give to these elements, and flash shrinks that space even further.
A flash piece can be a complete story, but it has to be a very basic story with no wasted space. Let's look at how those elements might fit in 1000 words or less:
Characters - Needless to say, your flash story isn't going to have a big cast. Most flash pieces only have two characters; some just have one, and more unusual pieces don't have characters at all, instead using the setting as a "character." Don't try to go for three characters - it might work, but the room's going to be crowded. You likely won't have space for backstory, so be prepared to characterize everyone in the story through actions and dialogue alone. Don't be afraid to go broad with your characterization - flash fiction isn't subtle, and editors can be a dense bunch anyway.
Setting - Here's where you're really going to have to slim down. You're not going to be describing rooms or vistas or clouds, or any of those other things people do to prove how "writerly" they are. If your piece is set in a real world location, find a way to slip the place and time to your readers and trust that they can set the stage themselves. If your setting is more fantastic, then this will be harder. Flash fiction isn't meant for really elaborate worldbuilding, so if you can't fully describe your spec setting through allusion, then you might just want to give yourself permission to go long.
Conflict - Any of the classic conflict types will work with flash ("Man v. Self" might be a stretch, but I've seen it done). Just remember to keep it simple.
Plot - Simplicity is the watchword here, even more so than the rest. Flash pieces - along with most full-length short stories - are built around a single concept. That might be a crime, a piece of technology, a disaster, a social trend...one central point around which everything else pivots. At the risk of repeating myself, it is the concept that makes the piece when writing flash. If the concept is too complex to sell itself, then it might not work unless you can cut the rest to the bone.
If anything's going to make your piece run long, it's the plot. Even a simple story will need to hit certain basic plot points, and those points can't really be cut. This is why editing flash can be such a hassle. In principle, revising a flash piece isn't much different than revising anything else, but there's less you even can do.
Given the difficulty in editing flash, what do you do with a story that's, say...1100 words long? How can you fix it?
Shrinking a Flash Piece
Editing down a flash piece for length can be a tedious, frustrating, but at times necessary procedure. Many flash markets have hard ceilings for length or specific length demands that may have you rushing to edit if your piece is even close to their maximum.
Paring that 1100 story down to 950 words entails cutting its word count by 14%. This is the equivalent of cutting over 10,000 words out of a typical novel...except that might be easier. When dealing with long works such as novels, there are many ways to cut word count, from deleting superfluous sentences and lines of dialogue to stripping out entire subplots or characters. With flash fiction, it's seldom so direct - you probably need everything there, to the point where you might not be able to find even a whole sentence you can safely cut.
If you're only a hair above 1000 words, you can downsize the story by making tiny edits throughout the work. I call this "sanding" - you make pass after pass, removing a handful of unneeded words each time until you reach your target. It's a slow process - you might only remove 20 or so words per pass - and you may run out of words to trim before you reach your target. If you need to cut more than a hundred or so words, this probably won't help.
The good news is that there's another approach for editing not-quite-flash length stories.
Expanding a Flash Piece
A 1100 word story is too long for most flash markets, so you might have it in your head to send it out to the more general markets. 1100 words might be a bit too short for them, though. Alternately, you might have a flash story that's been rejected from the high-quality flash markets, and you're wondering if the other markets will even consider it.
In either case, it's time to consider expanding your story. While many markets - the ones without word count floors - will technically consider flash, they aren't really looking for such very short pieces. You can better appeal to them by taking your flash story and rewriting it into a full-length story.
Challenging? Certainly it is, but it's not impossible. I've done this a lot with my own flash pieces. For an extreme example, head over to the Cavalcade of Rejection and check out a story called "Second Chance, Stolen to Order." This started life as a 750-word quickie and went through numerous rewrite cycles, with the longest version of the story being almost 3800 words long.
From "Second Chance, Stolen to Order," a story whose length was increased fivefold.
That's an outlier, of course, but you can probably grow many of your own works into 1500 or even 2000 word stories that are more in line with what's considered a "full-length" short story.
Not every flash fiction story is suitable for expansion. Very high-concept stories probably don't have enough substance to survive the procedure. The best candidates are pieces that allude to a longer story, omit conversations or action for the sake of brevity, and feature relatively deep characters. Expanding these stories is a simple matter of reinserting everything you held back - make explicit what you implied, let your characters talk as much as they need, and go to town with your setting.
On a more specific note, I've had the most success expanding stories that use the first-person perspective and feature a lot of internal monologue. With these pieces, you can grow them by adding dialogue, action, exposition, description - pretty much anything that builds the world outside of the POV character's head. Aside from "Second Chance, Stolen to Order," this is also true for the Cavalcade stories "Maxie" (initial version 500 words, final version 1200 words) and "The Gun That Didn't Fire" (700 words to 1700 words).
In future installments, we'll look at some pieces that worked out and some others that didn't.