La petite nouvelle the French call it. Actually, they don’t. They don’t call it that at all, I just lied to you because it sounded nice. They really call it micronouvelle, and it is what most of us know as flash fiction.
But what IS flash fiction, you ask? That’s a tricky question to answer with any specificity. There are those who would say that flash fiction is any story told in no more than seventy-five words, and some might call them Nazis for it (Me, specifically. I would.), but most can generally agree that limits ranging from five hundred to one thousand words are at least popular enough to sound like the new standard. Personally, I stick to a limit of five hundred words, because I feel that extending it to a thousand may as well open the door to a full-on short story, and nobody asked for that, so keep it in your . . . brain. Guy.
As this is my blog and we’re asking me what I think on the matter, I’m going to tell you my reason for this opinion briefly. Most of it comes down to the belief that in a piece of flash you are looking at one moment in time, and not the history behind it or the consequences that follow. You, as the author, may have ideas about how events transpired, what brought the characters to where they are, and where they might go when the moment ends, but that’s not for the words written to tell.
“If my ideas don’t fit in five hundred words, though, why should I bother with flash?”
I hear you, dude speaking out of turn, and I have an answer conveniently prepared ahead of time for this very occasion. The answer is, in my opinion, because it’s easy to meander around a novel-length story until you find what you need. It’s easy to embellish a scene with more ambiance and dialogue, and to pad out the length with exposition, but this can lead to that dreaded of all quagmires; the Infodump. When you’re required to think in the briefest of terms, to convey thoughts, emotions, and/or actions in the space it usually takes your character, the professor, to give his class (and the reader) the introduction to a primer on the history of the world, you force yourself to figure out the most conservative way to keep the reader informed without losing the story for it.
“Yeah, but I still don’t–”
Don’t be obtuse, and please raise your hand. The reason it’s important to learn how to do this in flash fiction, and short stories in general, is because it has immediate benefits to your writing in other mediums. When you train yourself to pack a sentence full of information without making it the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, you spend less time digressing from the plot and action and more time keeping your reader on the edge of their seat.
To put it in edible terms, a flash piece is a lean slab of beef with all the fat trimmed off, and then more beef trimmed off so you can eat it in one bite. Which, come to think of it, would be a really bad theme for a restaurant, especially if it meant they offered you the flash fiction version of a steak dinner. But, it works really well in trying to decide what you keep in your micronouvelle.
Yes, you there. I see you raising your hand, and that’s great. Go on then, what is it?
“How do I decide what to keep? Or, for that matter, what to write?”
To be fair, that’s two questions. I was kind of expecting only one, but I can answer both of them together, so you didn’t throw me off too much.
Deciding what you keep depends entirely on what you choose to write. If, for instance, your story is about an apple being eaten, you wouldn’t spend your precious words telling us how it came to be in a position to be eaten. Alternately, if your story is about a man’s quest for food, you might not focus on the actual eating of the apple. When I sit down to write a shorter piece, I usually focus on what I think of as “crystallizing an atmosphere”. This is to say that I decide what I want the reader to feel, and then I craft a story to capture that feeling, emotion, or mood, and anything that doesn’t contribute to that end has no place.
Now, I’ve been chided before for expressing the opinion “if it doesn’t do X, it has no business existing”, but where X could be foreshadowing or establishing patterns of behavior/objects that will later be of relevance, to me it also means anything communicating something meaningful to the reader that relates to the content of the narrative. This could be as simple as a man eating a crayon, provided (and here’s where the kicker lies:) illustrating it benefits the narrative. In the context of short stories and flash fiction, though, this is all the more inflexible as you don’t have the space-luxury (on the page, not in outer– you know what I mean) to paint a picture in both broad strokes and fine detail. You pick one, and stick with it.
There you are again with the hand.
“How do YOU write flash pieces?”
Oh! How sweet of you to ask! I shall tell you in list form.
- Pick an Atmosphere
It’s hard to know what kinds of words I’m going to need, or what I’m going to find most inspiring if I don’t have a mood in mind. A single prompt can become any number of stories when envisioned through different emotional filters, so I find picking that mood first makes it easier to jump into the actual writing when it comes time for it.
- Pick a Prompt
For me it can be all too easy to fall prey to fancy when you have no true aim at the start of your flash fiction exercise. Your brain wanders, your eyes wander, your pen wobbles and taps against the page, and you’re not really sure what you want to write, so you bounce around ideas, and in the process might come up with something with more possibility than the restrictions of flash would allow. Because of this, I like finding a definitive seed around which the story can grow, like a pearl, because normal seeds are the things that grow, and that’s not what I said the story seed does, so more like a pearl than a plant.
I like to ask someone to provide a word or phrase, and whatever is offered is what I write. I don’t ask for a selection, or rifle through dictionaries until something jumps out at me. The very first thing I get is what I make work. If you don’t have a friend you trust to give you words you’ll want to work with, try opening the dictionary to a random page, or even an online dictionary or equivalent, and use the very first word or entry your mind registers. Personally, I prefer grabbing people off the street and demanding a word or phrase not related to my releasing them.
Whatever your means, don’t balk at whatever word you end up with; consider it a challenge to write outside of your comfort zone, and a chance for literary growth.
- Know Your Ending
You may have your starting sentence in mind already, but before you get too enthusiastic about plunging in, figure out your ending. Not knowing the end is a perfectly viable format for writing many things, but this is definitely what leads to more plot bunnies than quick resolutions. For this reason, I always decide what my ending will be before I ever type a word. Because I can check my word count as I go, I use this to keep track of how many words I have left to reach that end, and can give enough context before the conclusion to make sure it doesn’t feel like a slap-dash afterthought, because I ran out of space. This also makes the edit process easier when you run over your limit.
- Trim Down to Your Limit
You don’t have to get it all right the second you start typing. As writers we’re going to edit everything, and a flash piece should not be the exception. Use the language you feel is appropriate, get to your goal in as conservative a manner as possible, but don’t curtail your creativity to the limitations of the medium. Go ahead and exceed a little bit, because the act of editing out the excess is an important part of training yourself to edit bigger pieces. You learn to recognize the descriptions that may be nice, but aren’t necessary for the scene. You may find yourself cutting single words, or re-finessing a sentence to say essentially the same thing in less space, and, hopefully, more effectively. This is probably the most helpful aspect of all the tricks used for writing and self-editing, regardless of the genre or medium.
A flash piece is like any other story, and should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, even if the story you’re telling is as short and simple as “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn” [Hemingway]. If you make sure your story contains just these three things (beginning, middle and end, not unworn baby shoes for sale) you’re well on your way to writing good flash fiction. You may find that only one or two of these steps work for you, or maybe none at all, and that’s fine. Just remember that not all methods are universally applicable, and that this is what I find works for me. If I didn’t feel they worked well, I’d print this post, crumple it up, burn it and scatter the ashes in shame for even thinking to write them out in the first place. Mostly, though, you should really give writing flash fiction a try, especially if you’re struggling in other projects.