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How to write flash fiction

Flash Fiction Friday - Simple Writing

All writers need writing practice, and flash fiction based on a photo or other prompt is a great way to expand your creativity and maybe even break through writer’s block. It can build confidence, too, especially if you’re a beginner. The best part is that it doesn’t require a big time commitment.

Flash fiction, also called short shorts, sudden fiction, and microfiction, is a general term for complete stories under 1500 words. Most often, flash fiction means a story of fewer than 400-500 words.

Why write flash fiction?

Composing an entire story in such a short space requires careful structuring, plotting, and word choice. Plus, you’ll get practice “showing” action rather than “telling” what happened while keeping descriptions to a minimum.

And opportunities to enter contests and get paid for your efforts are plentiful. A search with keywords like flash fiction contests or flash fiction submissions 2018 will turn up plenty.

Why not give it a whirl?

Based on the photo prompt above, write a story of no more than 1500 words based on what the photo makes you feel, imagine, or remember. It could be absolutely anything, and it doesn’t need to be about a house. Maybe a feeling of uncertainty or fear comes to you. Or you wonder, how did that house get there? Was there a flood? Is someone in there? How scary! Maybe your eccentric aunt had a blue house … the possibilities are endless.

And who knows? It might be the start of a novel or even a non-fiction essay.

Get started

1. Set aside some uninterrupted time. Fifteen to thirty minutes is good, but try to give yourself an hour, at least, so you can relax. Grab your favorite beverage, do some stretches, take a few slow, deep breaths, and kick back.

2. Take a good look at the photo above. What do you see? How does it make you feel? What does it remind you of? Examine it for a few minutes, then start writing.

3. Write anything that comes to mind. Don’t worry about typos, grammar, or punctuation just yet.

Nothing happening? No worries. Here’s how I often start writing with a photo prompt.

What is that house doing on that … thing. What is it, a building or something? What happened? Was there a tsunami or a flood or what? The house is small. Looks like a cabin almost. Or maybe it’s a prefab thing built for fire survivors in California or something and then the mudslides… Tornado? Hmm. Maybe a small family. A man, woman, and baby. Maybe they’re still in there, waiting to be rescued. Or just the baby, and the father is outside freaking out. Are rescue efforts successful?

And now I have an image in my head of what happened, who was involved, and how it ends. It might change, but it’s enough to get started. The combination of asking questions about the photo plus the familiar feel of a keyboard gets me going.

Read more here: How to Use Photos Prompts for Writing

4. Rough drafts are rough. It’s okay to go over the limit in your rough draft—that’s what editing is for, after all. But don’t let things get out of hand. A maximum for a rough draft might be around 500–600 words if you choose a 350-word flash fiction story. Then cut it down during revision. You’ll be amazed at what you can do.

Confession: I like to torture myself and write exactly 350 words or whatever the limit is. No more, no less. It forces me to write only what’s needed yet make maximum use of the word count.

5. Structure is essential. One way to go is with three acts, like in a play. In Part One, establish the setting, the characters, and the problem or goal. In Part Two, introduce the complication or barrier to resolving the problem. In Part Three, present the resolution to the problem or the outcome.

You can play around with structure, of course, but be aware of what you’re doing and keep it simple. Remember, each of three sections has only ~116 words (with 350 words), though of course it can vary.

For example, I tend to end flash fiction with a crash and very little in the way of explanation. For me, Parts One and Two might use 150 words each whereas Part Three gets only fifty. You can read some of my own flash fiction here and here.

After you’ve written a rough draft, give it a break for at least a few hours. Better yet, come back to it the next day or several days later or even after a few weeks. You’ll see it more clearly than if you get right to work with revision and editing. In fact, I’d like to edit the two pieces I linked to above. A few years really makes you see things with fresh eyes!

Time to revise, fine-tune, and wrap it up

5. Revise and edit. When your story is fully fleshed out, build it up here and cut it back there. Does it move along at a steady pace? Does the pace pick up as needed for fast action? Will the reader understand everything?

If you have trouble cutting it down, remove adjectives and adverbs and choose stronger nouns and verbs. Rework prepositional phrases: “the roof of the house” becomes “the house’s roof” or just “the roof” if the house was already mentioned. And recast sentences overloaded with small words (fewer than three or four letters).

6. Copyedit and proofread. Check the rhythm by reading out loud. Rephrase sentences you stumble over. Check grammar and punctuation as well as spelling.

7. Time for a break. Return to your fabulous piece of flash fiction and read through one more time. If you want to make changes, go for it. But be sure to proofread once again.

And there you have it. Why not give flash fiction a try?

Comments and questions are always welcome.

Photo by Cindy Tang on Unsplash


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5 comments… add one
  • Can we use an on-topic article (or adapt one to length) that has been published?

    • No, I’d say not. Give yourself the gift of some practice using this particular photo. See what you come up with! It’s pretty cool how it works, when ideas seem to come out of nowhere. I’ll look forward to it!

  • I missed the first Flash Friday, is there a new topic for this week? If so I would like to participate.
    Thank you

    • Hi Steph, There hasn’t been much interest, so I’ve let it go for now. Stay tuned! Maybe I can convince everyone of the value 🙂

  • This is really a great article and a great read for me. It’s my first visit to your blog and I have found it so useful and informative. Thank you


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