Brief thoughts on flash fiction

Someone recently asked me what advice I’d have about writing flash fiction so I decided to post on the topic. Since many of you are writers and write flash regularly, please comment and share your tips and tricks too.

Flash fiction, or Short-shorts, are 1000 words or less. Once you get to 500 words you might consider the work Micro-fiction. Pieces of 100 words are referred to as Drabble.

Nomenclature aside, flash fiction is a highly condensed form of storytelling. Flash fiction lends itself well to prose poetry and experimental form because of this extreme compression of the story.

One place I’d recommend a new flash fiction writer go for examples is the annual compliation from Wigleaf. The Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions (link for 2012 selections: are curated by a different editor each year and represent a broad cross section from lit mags all over the web.

Once you find some you like, notate where the story appeared. Put it on your target list for submissions.

Someone once said of writing… novels are easiest, short stories are harder, poetry is difficult. I agree, but since we’re talking about flash, I’d place it as a category between “longer” short stories and poetry.

Poets ensure every single word counts and apply a high polish. There is nowhere to hide in a poem, each word has a life. Flash fiction takes after poetry, you must make every word count and the words selected need to be strong and support the structure of the piece.

When I write flash, I take a critical look at my use of adjectives and adverbs and do my best to replace them with descriptive nouns and “muscular verbs” (my phrase). But it won’t be enough. A good flash locks together like a puzzle; many hours can be spent rearranging the placement of words and sentences.

If one bit of a flash is out of synch with the whole, it sticks out. Those bits need to be removed, and the re-arranging will continue. Let your work rest and re-approach it with fresh eyes. You’d be amazed at what jumps out at you the next day, or a few days later.

What are your secrets to writing flash fiction? How do you ensure the piece is the best it can be?

I look forward to the discussion…


5 Responses

  1. “Someone once said of writing… novels are easiest, short stories are harder, poetry is difficult. I agree”

    I’m not sure who someone is, but they’re wrong. A short story is a single idea, eloquently expressed. I recently finished Blake Bailey’s lengthy bio of John Cheever, and I was interested to see how Cheever, a master of one form, spent decades banging his head against another form. He had one thing, that single flash of genius, but not the other. A novel is an entire worldview, a constellation of ideas suspended in a coherent arc, encompassing hundreds of balls in the air all at once, thousands of choices regarding point of view, narrative order, reveals and conceals. There’s no higher form of art.

    • At the atomic level, the individual word level, a poem probably has the most work put into it to make it great. That’s what I was trying to capture in my idea of flash…individual words can have tremendous weight because the form is so brief.

      I agree with your comment that a short story, or flash, needs to encapsulate a single idea and focus on its expression.

      What I wasn’t trying to do was dis the novel form. I also agree…”a novel is an entire worldview and there are thousands of choices to be made about presenting the big picture” but at the individual word level, a novel would never get finished if it was focused at that atomic level.

      (You might argue the point with Finnegan’s Wake, but that’s more theoretical.)

      The difficulties and challenges of novels and poems aside, flash fiction has its own set of demands to achieve a well crafted outcome.

      P.S. Dear readers, if you have not checked out Harry’s novels, you should do so immediately. If his response isn’t evidence of his great passion for his form, I don’t know what is… plus I can attest to the eloquence of his writing! (

  2. You bring up some really, really interesting points here. The one that struck me the most was your comparison of poetry and flash fiction, that “words have no where to hide.” How apt!

    I think that success in flash fiction is similar to success in poetry – as you rightly say, making sure every word packs a punch and isn’t hidden in any flippant descrption or wasteful rambling. It’s almost as though you take a poem and flesh it out that little bit more, or put words to a picture, a moment in time, as opposed to aiming for a beginning, middle and end, as dictates longer stories.

    Great post Carol!

    • Thanks Louise. Yes, it makes a whole lot of sense you’d relate to the poetry comments… you poetess you!

      There are a lot of examples of brief (100-200 word) flash that is SO close to poetry, now people are using “prose poem” to describe it.

      Here on the inter-webs, so many people have short attention spans, so doesn’t it make sense the briefest forms are most prevalent?

      As always, thanks for your insights and comments my friend from Down Under.

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