Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Less is More (at least when writing flash fiction)

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I am working on a flash fiction piece that’s turning out to be a challenge. It was going nowhere, so I asked one of my mentors, Steven Manners, to provide some insight on this conundrum. Based on my story, this is what he told me: 

“Because of the compression, the approach needed is more like poetry.
The key, I think, is to think in terms of multiple layers of meaning. The idea is to present a simple enough scenario, then scratch away through language to open up levels of interpretation for the reader. This is the postmodern influence: not to tell a person a story, a beginning middle/end, but to force readers to include themselves by "completing" the story.”

Although I applied Steven's valuable advice, I still needed the technical part of it. English author, David Gaffney posted some tips in The Guardian.

1. Start in the middle.
You don't have time in this very short form to set scenes and build character.

2. Don't use too many characters.
You won't have time to describe your characters when you're writing ultra-short. Even a name may not be useful in a micro-story unless it conveys a lot of additional story information or saves you words elsewhere.

3. Make sure the ending isn't at the end.
In micro-fiction there's a danger that much of the engagement with the story takes place when the reader has stopped reading. To avoid this, place the denouement in the middle of the story, allowing us time, as the rest of the text spins out, to consider the situation along with the narrator, and ruminate on the decisions his characters have taken. If you're not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or "pull back to reveal" endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel – the drum roll and cymbal crash. Avoid this by giving us almost all the information we need in the first few lines, using the next few paragraphs to take us on a journey below the surface.

4. Sweat your title.
Make it work for a living.

5. Make your last line ring like a bell.
The last line is not the ending – we had that in the middle, remember – but it should leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the story but rather take us into a new place; a place where we can continue to think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant. A story that gives itself up in the last line is no story at all, and after reading a piece of good micro-fiction we should be struggling to understand it, and, in this way, will grow to love it as a beautiful enigma. And this is also another of the dangers of micro-fiction; micro-stories can be too rich and offer too much emotion in a powerful one-off injection, overwhelming the reader, flooding the mind. A few micro-shorts now and again will amaze and delight – one after another and you feel like you've been run over by a lorry full of fridges.

6. Write long, then go short.
Create a lump of stone from which you chip out your story sculpture. Stories can live much more cheaply than you realise, with little deterioration in lifestyle. But do beware: writing micro-fiction is for some like holidaying in a caravan – the grill may well fold out to become an extra bed, but you wouldn't sleep in a fold-out grill for the rest of your life.

What about you? Have you written flash fiction? Did you find it easy to write?


  1. I have never, ever written flash fiction, Claudia. It does sound challenging!

    I think a lot of these points can also apply to longer works. Especially #1-- I've critiqued pieces from those just starting out in university, and I can't tell you how often the beginnings are lackluster. Cutting just the first few paragraphs often leads to a much stronger piece.

  2. I'm afraid it's not my forte. I tend to fall into the punch line trap - a trap I hadn't realised before reading this article. Thanks for that : )

  3. This is excellent advice, Claudia. I did not know the category 'micro fiction' existed but I recognize some of the techniques listed as the very ones I used when writing my book, Silent Women. It's exciting when things dovetail so nicely! I hope this is helpful for you to complete your own of luck with that and thank you for always giving us such interesting nuggets!

  4. I thank the day I discovered the wonderful world of flash fiction!! I love writing it, I love learning how to write it! I'm still working on making my last line a killer with the wow factor but I really enjoy writing this type of story! :-)

    Have I said, I love flash fiction?! LOL!

    Thank you for these great tips, Claudia! Good luck with your story! take care

  5. Thank you, guys for your comments. Sorry I haven't answered but it's been crazy for the past week....and it continues to be so. :(
    I'll get back to you asap!
    Thanks for your understanding. :)

  6. Lovely share, Claudia! I've written flash fiction, and some of it has been published. And I've often compared it to poetry. But I like all the other tips, here, and this post is definitely a keeper. Especially as I am working on a flash fiction now! :-)

  7. Hi Elizabeth,
    I'm happy to hear these tips are helpful ;)
    Flash fiction is NOT easy at all. You have to condense a whole story in a few lines. I've edited my story at least ten times and it's still not there yet :(
    Good luck with yours!

  8. Belated HAPPY EASTER!

    I be back and easing myself back into the blog routine. Hope all is well, shall email you soon.

    M x :)

    1. Hi Mark,
      Thank you!
      Hope you get back to blogging. Let me know when you do so I can stop by ;)

  9. Regardijg the 'Flash Fiction' idea - before I stumbled upon the 'Five Sentence Fiction' blog thing, you might recall I was doing a regular 'Friday Short Fiction' slot on my blog? Well, my aim (to begin with) was to write a piece that would take no more than 3 minutes to read. That I found to be a brilliant exercise in focusing the mind, plus I was aiming to give folks something to read on the train, tube, bus, etc.

    Let me know what you come up with, I'd love to read it :)

  10. Hi Mark,
    Yes, that's a great idea. In writing workshops and with my writing circle we did "automatic writing" and we timed ourselves. It's a great exercise.
    Why don't you hold a contest? I did once. It's so much fun.