by Christine Hennebury
I really enjoy writing flash fiction because I can finish a draft quickly, polish it and do something with it right away.
That’s not to say that flash fiction is easy, or that you can just toss out any old thing and call it flash fiction. This type of writing takes skill, but you can practice it more quickly that you can when writing longer forms of fiction.
The cycle of draft, revision, revision, revision, completion is much faster when you are dealing with changing a few words, lines, or paragraphs than when you are dealing with page after page of text.
If wrangling fiction of this length – flash is usually under 1000 words – is appealing to you, here are some of the ways I approach the art of flash fiction.
Start with an image
This doesn’t have to be literally a photograph, it could be a mental image, or a phrase. Any sort of strong THING that sticks with you and makes you wonder.
You know sometimes you will see an item out in the world and you just *know* a bit of its story? The single glove left on the bench and you say to yourself ‘Ah, she’s hoping he’ll find it and come looking for her.’ Or the oddly shaped candy that makes you think ‘The witch would never trick the kids with that one.’
That kind of ‘flash’ of brilliance is a good place to start.
Make it into a moment
So, you take that mental image and you turn it into a moment. That sounds a bit weird, but it’s a matter of expanding that image from the step above into a meaningful experience.
This is when you ask yourself some questions – Why were they not together? Why did she think the glove would work? How will he know it is hers? Does he want to find her? Does she actually want him to find her? Will she actually go where he thinks she will be?
Why is the image important? (at least within the story) What matters to the people involved?
These questions will get you to what your story is truly about – the witch’s dissatisfaction with her own methods, or her frustration with her trainees, or her annoyance at not being able to catch children lately, or, her self-sabotage so she can get out of the witching game. Each of those stories has a different ‘heart’ and that heart would affect the choices you make in your writing.
Get in Close
When you are writing a longer piece, you have lots of time to develop your characters and your ideas. Flash fiction doesn’t have time for a slow build, you have to have everything right there for the reader.
Unless you are using (metaphorical) distance as a tool, you will want your readers to be very close to the people and the action.
If the story is about what is behind a door, don’t start with getting out of the car, start with reaching for the handle. If is about fear, start with the thumping heartbeat.
You want your readers to FEEL your story so you have to plunge them in.
You use what you know about the heart of your story to decide when that plunge will take place.
Note: Sometimes the story is about things moving slowly, or about the dread of doing something. You will still want to plunge your readers into those feelings but you will deliberately choose more distance in that case. Your plunge wouldn’t be into the action, it would be into the emotion.
Sharpen your Work
Flash fiction is a very pointed type of writing so it has to be sharp. 😉
Every word has to do its job, and every description has to be as effective and efficient as possible.
I usually start the sharpening process by reading my work aloud. That helps me to catch any clunky phrasing and alerts me to places where I have a clutter of words.
Word clutter is not necessarily clunky or poorly written – it’s just any place in the writing where I am saying a lot and where I might be able to pare down. I smooth out clunky parts, and then take out as many words as I possibly can without losing meaning (or impact) and see how that changes the flow of the story.
I also take some time with my descriptions and details.
Perhaps I have said my character works in construction but it would be more effective to just describe her putting her hammer in the loop on her belt. I might edit out the pile of books on my character’s night stand and replace it with the ache in his hand from holding up the heavy book.
In a recent piece, I had written that the character place a blanket on top of a pile of items in a trunk. In my revision, she was tucking her grandmother’s crocheted blanket around the items. For the purposes of the story I was telling, having her ‘tuck’ instead of ‘place’ made more sense. If I was trying to convey indifference, it would work better the other way around. The added description of the blanket made her care for the items beneath even more apparent.
When you are conscious of the heart of your story, it’s much easier to decide what descriptions and actions will support your readers’ understanding.
Some final points:
Flash fiction often starts as something longer and gets pared down. Don’t panic if your stories are a bit on the long side – especially in that first draft.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there has to be a twist. While some pieces of flash fiction will throw readers for a loop, that doesn’t have to happen. As long as your story shows a true moment in a life, and implies changes, you’re doing well.
When I think of flash fiction, I really focus on the feeling of a flash – a quick bright moment. Whether that flash is of insight, pain, connection, humour, understanding, thoughtfulness, or horror is up to you.
Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her at christinehennebury.com or visit her on Facebook .