Today’s post is an excerpt from the new book Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction by Nancy Stohlman (@nancystohlman).
Consider flash fiction an opportunity. Let go of your tricks and your clever exposition techniques. Let go of your need to explain. Discover what you don’t need to say.
Let go of description—one perfect detail will do the trick. Let silences be potent. Don’t rush to fill them.
Let go of extra words: create meaningful gaps.
Let go of the urge to linger.
So what’s left?
What’s left is a tightly crafted nugget of concentrated gold. What’s left is flash fiction.
Writers arrive at flash fiction with different strengths and weaknesses. Prose writers, including novelists, memoirists, and short story writers, are usually comfortable with narrative but can struggle with the word constraint. Poets are usually good working in small spaces, but they can struggle with narrative, creating vignettes or prose poems that may or may not be telling a story.
A good story has urgency. Something has to happen.
The flash fiction story bends with tension like a fish caught at the end of a pole. There’s movement, a sense of something unfolding—or having just unfolded.
Flash fiction has an almost desperate need to tell a story before it’s too late.
The Zoom Lens
One of my favorite approaches to writing a flash fiction story is what I call the zoom lens—taking an ultra close-up shot of what’s potentially a much bigger story. It’s like narrowing the focus from a wide-angle landscape to a single flower. In flash fiction, the single flower can be the whole world.
To begin, make a list of stories or potential stories you intend to write/rewrite. Now for each of these stories identify the actual timeline—how much chronological time does this story cover from beginning to end? A week? Three weeks? A year? An hour? Several months? One day? Ten years?
Once you’ve decided, ask yourself: what’s the most important 5 minutes?
Now write that and only that.
When you zoom, the whole story happens in one frame. There’s no room for backstory or extraneous description. Resist the urge to explain anything, no flashbacks or other tricks of exposition—just “drop” us into that little slice of story.
Five minutes later, leave.
Implicate the Reader
There are only two “rules” to flash fiction: it should be 1,000 words or less, and it should tell a story. But how can you tell an entire story in such a small space—sometimes as few as 50 words? We do it through very purposeful implication. As writers, we can imply all sorts of things—from action to description to backstory. For instance—if I tell you I just flushed the toilet, I’m implying and you’ll assume I just used the bathroom. If tell you I sat on the porch, you’ll assume I had to open the door and walk outside. If I tell you I got on an airplane, then you’ll assume I had to arrive at the airport, check my luggage, etc. A writer doesn’t have to describe the security check or the turning of the front door handle as long as they are obvious assumptions.
Now if I was flushing a gun down the toilet or getting on a private jet, I would need to explain.
Entire settings can be implied. One writer sets his stories in places like airports or hotels so he doesn’t have to describe the setting. “Airport” and “hotel” are familiar and already bring up a host of implied descriptions. But if the airport is filled with goats or the hotel concierge has a glass eye—you better describe that.
Is the Story Too Long? Embrace Constraints
My story is just over 1,000 words—too long for flash? The answer is technically yes (though I’ve occasionally seen flash defined as 1,200 or even 1,500 words), but I’ve found that a story coming in at 999 words is usually written by someone who’s still trying to “make it fit.”
Writers new to flash often find the constraint arbitrary and infuriating: why such a stickler on the word count? So what if it’s a few words over?
But I believe the magic of flash fiction happens because of the constraint. Interesting things bulge against boundaries. From sonnets to prompts—even deadlines—many writers find they produce their best work when pushing against a constraint: you can only paint with the color green, you must finish a film in 48 hours, you have to write a story without using the letter E. Beethoven wrote his most important symphony when he was deaf.
Embracing the constraint is the true gift of flash fiction. So, if your first attempts are ending up at 999 words, don’t worry. The more comfortable you get, the more your stories will naturally shrink. Here’s how you’ll know you’ve crossed over: you’ll never need to look at the word count again.
Flash Myth #1: Smaller Is Easier
Let’s debunk Myth #1.
Housed in the Chicago Institute of Art are the Thorne Miniature Rooms, tiny replicas of actual historic rooms painstakingly crafted on a scale of one inch: one foot. You press your face up to each of the 68 windows and gaze at the fully formed world inside—complete with exotic woods, fabrics, chandeliers and intricate, hand-woven rugs. The attention to detail in each room would be impressive even at life size, but the true fascination is the fact that they are just so damn tiny!
One of the reasons people love flash fiction is because, like the Thorne Rooms, there is something awe-inspiring about entering a perfectly formed tiny world. When done correctly, tiny is part of the art: the Mona Lisa on a grain of rice, a sculpture of Charlie Chaplin balanced on an eyelash. And it often requires more skill from the writer, not the other way around. Creating something tiny takes a different level of expertise and precision.
Sometimes when people discover flash fiction they assume: oh, it’s cute, it’s small, it’s easy. But to fully appreciate flash we must assume mastery: the story is small because the author has decided to tell it this way.
Flash Myth #2: Readers Have Short Attention Spans
This is probably the most common flash myth. But readers aren’t enamored with flash fiction because they have short attentions spans—that’s like saying the sculptor of the bonsai tree didn’t have the attention for a full-grown tree, or that people who eat sliders don’t have the attention for a quarter-pound hamburger. Maybe, just maybe, they like sliders and bonsai trees?
In the same way, readers love flash fiction because it’s complex and breathtaking and accomplishes so much in such a tiny space.
In fact, flash fiction requires a more sophisticated reader. The story demands the reader to “pay close attention”—every sentence, every word takes on a new significance, if only for the limited number of them. The reader must jump the gaps, fill in the blanks, follow the breadcrumbs, and inhabit the purposeful spaces left by the writer. Which means that flash fiction is cultivating a new symbiosis between writer and readers, on and off the page.
As readers, we’ve gotten used to sitting in the audience and being entertained. But it’s nearly impossible to passively consume flash fiction. Leaving things unsaid and undigested requires effort and interpretation; the reader steps out of the role of voyeur and becomes an active participant in the story. It’s this act of interpretation that keeps art vital—no longer just watching from a darkened audience, flash fiction invites the reader up on the stage, hands them a tambourine, and tells them to keep up.
Flash Myth #3: Bigger Is Better
“Important” literary works are big. Therefore, some people still dismiss flash fiction as trivial. How could anything important be accomplished in such a small space? Flash fiction is good for barroom bets, not for serious literature.
The implication here is the more we have of something, the better it is. War and Peace is “important”: it’s long, it’s hard, it’s complex, it’s 1,200 pages. But The Old Man and the Sea is only 120 pages and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Should we assume that Tolstoy worked 10x harder than Hemingway or that his work is 10x more important? The truth is they can’t really be compared. Flash fiction should be judged on its own terms.
It’s meant to be digested in one sitting—it encourages speed, not languishing. Longer literature is meant to be enjoyed over time. But flash fiction doesn’t look for sweeping vistas. Flash fiction is not the epic saga. Flash fiction is that guy on the beach with the metal detector. We don’t need to know his history, we don’t need to know what he looks like. Just tell us what he finds.
I’ll be honest: I had a hard time going short. After more than 10 years writing novels, my first “flash” stories were cannibalized from various longer projects, fixed with new titles, and called flash. And this sort of worked, for a minute, but it felt like cheating (and it was). I hadn’t really written flash at all.
I think most writers spend some transitional time as flash frauds. Eventually you run out of excerpts or longer stories to butcher or prose poems to pass off and are forced to do what you should be doing from the beginning—conceiving stories in flash. I knew when I finally wrote a real flash piece: it felt different.
And once I started “seeing in flash,” the stories were all around me like 3D images emerging from an optical illusion—finally presenting themselves.
Flash fiction has created a new sort of genre freedom with only one rule: tell us a story in 1,000 words. I don’t care how you do it. Just make it work.
So many of the joys of both writing and reading flash fiction are the literary acrobatics that happen when plots are forced to bend in such small spaces. Flash stories can be circular, change tenses or points of view, told as monologues or in a found form, told backwards or completely in dialogue. A flash story might be one long circular breathless sentence. We are telling stories that could not be told in any other form.
As a writer, that’s incredibly exciting.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Nancy Stohlman’s new book Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction.
Nancy Stohlman has been a writer, editor, publisher, and professor for more than a decade, and her latest book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, is her treatise on the form. Her other books include The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories and Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, a finalist for a 2019 Colorado Book Award. Her stories have been anthologized widely, appearing in the W.W. Norton New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction and The Best Small Fictions 2019, as well as adapted for the stage and screen and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder and at workshops and retreats around the world. Find out more at nancystohlman.com.