Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On Flash Fiction

I've written a bit of flash fiction in my day. I enjoy it very much--both writing and reading.

But I don't write flash exclusively. Why?

I consider it more a tool for my own study of the craft of writing.

I want to be a well-rounded writer. I want to have a deep understanding of the elements of fiction writing. So I read it all--all lengths and (mostly) all genres. I study it all. I critique the stories of others. I engage in discussion on writing topics in writing communities. And, of course, I write.

But, as I said, flash is a tool. A very valuable tool, in my opinion. Every writer should study the craft of writing flash fiction as a way of improving their own writing skills.

First, I think it's important to establish my definition of flash fiction:

flash fiction n. 1. A story constructed in 1000 words or fewer. A flash fiction story must contain the basic elements of any story--plot, character development, setting.

I do not consider vignettes, or slice-of-life, to be flash fiction. They might be less than 1000 words, but unless they contain an actual story with beginning, middle, end, conflict and resolution they are not flash fiction. At least by my definition.

So how does one write a complete story in so few words?

The answer is reduction.

You can almost establish a formula for story length dependent upon certain factors. These are:
1. Number of characters;
2. Number of scenes;
3. Number of conflicts that require resolution;
4. Complexity and number of settings.

When you reduce these numbers, you'll have a short story. Reduce them further and you have flash fiction.

Flash is generally not capable of supporting more than 2 or 3 characters, or more than 2 or 3 scenes, and works best if there is a single point of conflict that requires resolution. Identify those, reduce them as much as is absolutely necessary to tell the story, and you just may find a short short story staring out at you from the computer screen.

As far as setting, understand that there are certain genres that are VERY hard to write well in a flash fiction format. Science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction--any genre that requires using up word space to explain an atypical setting, rules of magic or science, establishing time and place. When you write in contemporary times, you need spend very little time making it clear to the writer that she is in familiar setting territory. But if that setting is in the least bit unfamiliar, it is crucial to any story that the setting be clarified. That takes time to do. You don't often have time to do that in flash fiction when you still must establish characters and work out a plot.

I won't say it can't be done. I won't say that any of these 'rules' can't be broken. I've seen them broken, and successfully; but not by a writer who doesn't understand and work efficiently with the writing craft.

And there's the beauty of studying and learning to write flash fiction. Efficiency. Few other forms of story construction can teach you that kind of efficiency in structuring sentences, characters, plot, on and on.

So, you want some practice? You want to read some?

Check out Join up. At Liberty Hall they write flash. Lots of it. Liberty Hall hosts a weekly members-only flash challenge. It goes something like this: Someone (generally the previous week's winner) selects a 'trigger.' It might be a picture or a phrase, a word or a website. Those participating in the challenge send in for this trigger on certain prearranged days--usually Friday and Saturday. Once they have sent for the trigger, each entrant has 90 minutes (yes, you read that right) to complete and submit a story. Participating writers and other members of Liberty Hall then spend the next few days reading and voting on their favorite stories. Each week has a best-of-the-best 'winner.' There are no prizes awarded and no promise of publication. But, darn it, it gets people writing.

And that's really the purpose of Liberty Hall. Founder Mike Munsil wanted to get people generating story ideas. And generate they have. LH keeps track through one its forum threads of all the stories that have been published after being first generated on Liberty Hall. They don't all stay flash fiction stories. Many writers take the skeletons of what they started at LH and develop them into longer stories, novels sometimes.

I also recommend a book titled 100 Malicious Little Mysteries, edited by Isaac Asimov. The book is about 300 pages, so each story is about 3 pages--about the length of a flash piece--and you'll find some GREAT stories in that collection. Beyond that, check out: where I work as a slush editor.
There's also

Any others? I love to advertise for good markets. If you know of any, leave me a comment and I'll put it up on my blog later.

1 comment:

Diary of a Fiction Writer said...

Great post Suzanne!

I am left thinking about one of your points in particular . . . And there's the beauty of studying and learning to write flash fiction. Efficiency.

Like you, I am an editor for an on-line flash fiction magazine, and right now my number one submission pet peeve is the lack of "efficiency" I am seeing in the stories I am reading.

Nothing stalls the pace of a flash fiction story more than a lack of efficiency. I'm seeing a rash--I say rash, cause it makes my skin crawl--of "sits down" and "stands up" and "shouts out" and "whispers softly" . . . well you get the picture.

Those sorts of word efficiency problems will stall any form of writing, but in flash fiction, it is downright criminal. And yes, those are the sorts of things that are easy to edit out. But when I see that level of inefficiency, it leads me to believe the writer is not utilizing the form of flash fiction to its fullest advantage, as both a worthy story form and exercise in efficient writing.