Lean Mean Writing Machine Flash Fiction and Other Short Fiction Forms

By Susan Doron

If you thought that writers had exhausted all the possible forms of fiction, think again. Once, writers could express themselves in forms such as epic poetry, sonnets, haiku, limericks, novels, novellas and short stories. Not surprisingly, the internet has encouraged the development of new forms of fiction, shorter and more concise than traditional forms and which can be made available to readers quickly.

Generally referred  to as flash fiction, these novel (no pun intended) forms, which have been around for nearly 20 years already,  take the traditional short story a step further. They are characterized by extreme brevity, their length ranging anywhere from 25 to 1000 words per story. Other appellations include micro fiction, sudden fiction, micro-story, postcard fiction short-short fiction and nano fiction. Drabble fiction demands stories of exactly one hundred words, and 69ers, as its name implies, demands stories of exactly 69 words, including the title.  It has been suggested that all these types of flash fiction can be considered the literary equivalent of a snapshot, focusing on a single moment, character or event.[1]

Of course, very short stories have been popular for centuries.  Some outstanding practitioners of the art include Aesop, Anton Chekov, O. Henry, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway and Ray Bradbury.  Indeed, the following unpublished story by Kafka, “Give it Up,” measuring 126 words,  is often cited as an early example of flash fiction:

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was walking to the station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized that it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me unsure of the way, I did not yet know my way very well in this town; luckily, a policeman was nearby, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: “From me you want to know the way?” “Yes,” I said, “since I cannot find it myself.” “Give it up! Give it up,” he said, and turned away with asudden jerk, like people who want to be alone with their laughter.

Kafka’s story, considered a good example of post-modernist despair, exhibits some of the elements important for flash fiction:

  1. Setting: In “Give it Up,” the setting is the deserted streets of the city;
  2. Character or Characters:   In the above story, there are two, unidentified characters: the lost man and the policeman.  In flash fiction, a character can even be an inanimate object, such as a tree or car;
  3. Conflict:  Here, the conflict is both within the lost man, and between him and the policeman.  For flash fiction, conflict can consist of a mere difference of opinion or some form of tension;
  4. Resolution: It’s unclear what the resolution, if any there is here. Often, the strength of flash fiction is the very ambiguity of its endings, which can leave readers in suspense.

Two specific forms of flash fiction worth noting are “55 fiction” and “hint fiction.”

55 fiction, originally developed by Steve Moss of New times refers to stories of no more than 55 words.  55 fiction stories must contain the four elements described above, and are usually characterized by drama, suspense and shock. In most 55 fiction works, the actual theme of the story does not emerge until the last line, and authors often make use of double meanings and confusing words to keep their readers in suspense.

Hint FictionThere is also “Hint Fiction”, defined by its creator and promoter, Robert Swartwood as fiction no longer than 25 words that hints at a larger story.  Swartwood was inspired to explore this form by a six word novel usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Swartwood responds to critics who fear that such short forms will further reduce readers’ ever-decreasing attention spans with the claim that this kind of writing helps writers learn word choice, which enables them to write better when they move to expanded forms. The form also provides writers with a germ of a story to serve as a guide to a fuller work.[2]

What Flash Fiction Is Not

Sometimes it may be easy to mistake flash fiction for other literary forms.  However, it should be remembered that flash fiction is actually a story.  It is not a descriptive vignette, a journal entry, or an essay without any conflict or resolution.  And it certainly is not a knock-knock joke!!

To Make a Long Story Short

Flash fiction may be short, but the process of creating it is not always sweet. Like so much other writer, it first demands a lot of preparation before the writer even turns to the keyboard.  Once the writer has a central idea and some concept of the characters and action, the writing can involve many sessions of paring down the text until it fits within the word limits.  In a recent article in The Guardian, David Gaffney relates how he began writing ultra-short stories on his 50 minute commute between Manchester and Liverpool. His first attempts were far too long for the 150 word limit he set, and he gradually pared them down between train stops, finally whittling the story down to 150 words, with “…a beginning, a middle and an end, with character development and description…”[3]

Indeed, the work of writing flash fiction can be likened to that of editing. In both cases, the writer or editor must find the clearest and most concise way of effectively conveying a message.

For such a short form of fiction, there is a surprising plethora of writing guides.  Some of the myriad of tips include:

  1. Decide what element of the story is primary;
  2. Keep the action in one place
  3. Focus on action
  4. Use (yes use!) clichés and stereotypes
  5. Establish setting, character and conflict quickly
  6. Establish a hook in the opening
  7. Look for smaller ideas
  8. Start in the middle of the action
  9. Focus on one powerful image
  10. Keep the reader guessing until the end
  11. Use a twist
  12. Use allusive references
  13. Avoid wasted words
  14. Avoid similes or metaphors
  15. Tell, don’t describe
  16. Avoid background or a pre-story
  17. Make the opening line a  hook

So now you think you too can enter the wild wonderful world of flash fiction.  Just how should you get started? Some practical suggestions from flash fiction writers include:

Some Practical Tips for writing

Number the words

Write quickly

Start with a topic sentence in mind

Set a timer for writing

Write the story from beginning to end without editing

Ensure that the story has a beginning, middle and end

Try for an unexpected ending

Write in the active voice.

Edit ruthlessly

Use a lot of dialogue

Flash fiction is no flash in a pan. It has spawned numerous contests, online magazines and printed book collections. The internet is rife with guides to writing and publishing flash fiction, and there is even a book devoted to teaching the principles of writing flash fiction.[4] No doubt, this new literary form will challenge many new writers, and will help make all of us better editors.


Publications”SmokeLong Quarterly (http://www.smokelong.com)

Vestal Review (www.vestalreview.net)

Funny Times (funnytimes.com)



Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories Jerome Stern,  Editor (Norton & Co.1996)

Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories, Robert Swartwood , Editor (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010)

[1]  Phoebe Durand, ” How to Write Flash Fiction – and Why You Want to” , Yahoo Contributor Network, Jan.4, 2006 (http://voices.yahoo.com/how-write-flash-fiction-why-want-to-13037.html, May 27, 2012)

[2]NPR Staff,” ‘Hint Fiction’ Celebrates The (Extremely) Short Story,” NPR Books,  Nov. 13, 2010 (http://www.npr.org/2010/11/13/131276783/-hint-fiction-celebrates-the-extremely-short-story, May 28, 2012)

 [3] David Gaffney, “Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction”, The Guardian, May 14, 2012 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/14/how-to-write-flash-fiction/print; May 20, 2012)

1 Comment

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  1. hardboiledop

    Very interesting! Thank You!

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