Flashing vs. Showing Us Your Shorts

Your short stories, that is.

Anyway, I’m no expert on writing flash fiction. For that, I refer you to Bruce Holland Rogers. But nearly half of the stories I’ve written and sold are flash fiction, so my fellow Sirens thought I should babble to you about writing flash fiction versus a more traditional short story.

Flash fiction is a tricksy little beastie. For starters, not everyone can agree on what flash fiction even is. Most folks define it as a story of 1,000 words or less, but I’ve seen some publications put the limit as low as 250 words or as high as 1,500. If there’s a point of consensus, it’s this: flash fiction is pretty dang short.

Short, however, doesn’t mean easy to write. The best flash stories are more than a vignette, and they have more substance than the set-up and punch line structure of a joke (says she who has been accused of writing both). A successful flash story does exactly what a short story does, only in a more compact format.

To analyze how flash fiction differs from a more traditional short story, I decided to look at the plot breakdown of two fantasy stories I wrote set in the same world. One is a 500-word flash piece about a leprechaun named Seamus; the other is a 4,800-word short story featuring Seamus’s son, Miles.

The flash story: “Lucky Clover” (Flash Fiction Online, March 2008)

  • Seamus is in the middle of a battle between his fellow leprechauns and their fairy enemies. The leprechauns are losing. Horribly.
  • Seamus has a magic four-leaf clover that could help him fight the fairies, but he’s afraid to use it since leprechauns think four-leaf clovers are an abomination. Seamus therefore has a choice: use the forbidden object and risk becoming an outcast, or watch his friends die. Horribly.
  • Seamus uses the clover, killing a crap-ton of fairies. Their corpses pile so high around him that no one sees him with the four-leaf clover. Seamus saves the day without being ostracized.

The short story: “Unlucky Clover” (Beyond Centauri, July 2011)

  • Miles’s mushroom house is stolen by humans. Not wanting to move back in with his father or sleep on his neighbor Frank’s couch, Miles decides to get his house back.
  • Frank tells Miles to take his magic family heirloom for protection (all leprechaun families have one), unaware that Miles’s heirloom is a four-leaf clover. Miles, ashamed to have an abomination for an heirloom, refuses.
  • Frank insists on asking Seamus, Miles’s father, to accompany them and use the heirloom himself since Miles won’t. Seamus refuses, too ashamed of the clover and the fact that Miles doesn’t respect him because of it.
  • Miles and Frank try to get Miles’s house back, but Frank is captured by humans.
  • Seeing no other way to save Frank, Miles asks his father to give him the four-leaf clover.
  • Miles uses the clover to fight off a cat, but is captured by humans, dropping the clover in the process.
  • Miles gets the clover back by outsmarting the humans, then uses it to help him and Frank escape.
  • Miles moves back in with his father, for whom he has a newfound respect now that he’s used the clover himself.

So why was I able to tell one story in 500 words while the other story took a lot more verbiage? They both have a protagonist with a conflict. They both have a beginning, middle, and end.

The difference is in the scale. The flash story focuses on a single character (Seamus) during a single defining moment. He has a choice, he makes it, and there’s resolution. The short story, on the other hand, focuses on multiple characters (Miles, Seamus, Frank) facing an escalating series of obstacles (the house is taken, Frank is captured, a cat tries to eat Miles, Miles is captured and loses the clover). Additionally, the protagonist’s conflict is two-fold: Miles has lost his house (external conflict), and he has to come to terms with his relationship with his father (internal conflict).

So in my view, the key to writing flash fiction is to keep it simple and focused. One protagonist (though you can have multiple characters). One clear obstacle (though I think you can pull off an internal and external conflict in flash if they very closely parallel each other—like, Siamese twin levels of paralleling). One setting. One theme. And 90% or more of the time, one scene. There are always exceptions, of course, but most of the successful flash stories I’ve read all have that single-minded focus in common.

On that note, I wish you happy flashing.

Barbara A. Barnett has two flash pieces out this month: “The Swan Maiden” at Flash Fiction Online and “The Perfect Coordinates to Raise a Child” at Daily Science Fiction. She invites you to check them out so you can see for yourself if she has succeeded or failed horribly in living up to her own flash writing advice.

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