Most of the time, when we think about being a writer, we think about writing books.
Fiction, nonfiction, reference books, memoirs, paperbacks, ebooks…all kinds of books. But we’re specifically thinking about longer works.
But savvy writers know that it takes all kinds of writing to make a sustainable career: books, articles, blog posts, short stories, and more.
But what about really short fiction? The kind of thing that you could easily fit into a tweet? Is there a point to writing something that short?
What Is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is pretty simple: it’s just a really, really short story. There’s no firm length set for the genre, but it’s generally held to consist of stories that are under 1,000 words long.
There are other even shorter categories inside that general definition:
Six-Word Story: Exactly what it sounds like. This extremely challenging subgenre involves telling a full story in only six words. Think of the classic example attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Twitter Story: These super-short stories consist of 140 characters or less—the amount that can fit in a tweet.
Dribble: A 50-word story is called a “dribble.”
Drabble: A 100-word story is called a “drabble.” This is one of the most popular categories of flash fiction, with all kinds of contests and challenges all over the web to help writers tap into their creativity while learning to avoid unnecessary flourishes.
Other names for flash fiction include “sudden fiction,” “immediate fiction,” “nanofiction,” and “microfiction.”
Most flash fiction stories tend to fall in the 500–750-word range, which is long enough to develop some conflict and intrigue but still shorter than a full short story.
Like all stories, a well-crafted flash fiction work has to include some sort of conflict, a compelling voice, and an emotional impact. This can be very, very hard to do inside that short a space, making flash fiction a great workout for writers.
Tips for Flash Fiction
Just because it’s short doesn’t mean flash fiction is easy! On the contrary—it can be incredibly hard to create a gripping story with just a few words.
Flash fiction should still be a full, satisfying story no matter how short it is. It needs a beginning, a middle, and an end to feel complete.
At its very best, a flash story should have a hook, a conflict and resolution plot arc, character development, tension, an interesting setting, good dialogue, and more.
That’s a lot to cram into less than 1,000 words, so it’s going to take some practice!
Here are some tips to help you get started.
Start in the Middle
In classic literature, there’s a technique called in medias res. It basically means starting in the middle of the action. Don’t create a long lead-up to your main conflict: jump in right in the middle of the action.
This creates a great narrative hook, engaging the reader immediately, and also cuts out a lot of background that won’t help you in flash fiction.
Show, Don’t Tell
It’s always important to let your readers use their imaginations, rather than describing every last little detail—but it’s especially critical when you don’t have unlimited words to use. Use the principle of “show, don’t tell” to give little peeks of meaning and glimpses into your setting and characters, rather than describing the environment or a person’s looks completely.
Leave Things Unsaid
This goes along with “show, don’t tell.” Your reader doesn’t need to know everything about everything in your story; you can let them fill in some of the gaps in their own mind. This can often be even more effective than spelling everything out, as the reader will make the story more personal and meaningful to them by imagining some of the details.
Use Fewer Characters
You don’t need a huge supporting cast to tell a great story. And in flash fiction, you really can’t have a dozen characters trooping around behind your protagonist. There’s just not enough space to develop them fully.
Instead, choose one or two characters to focus on, developing their personalities and nuances.
Concentrate on a Theme
Pick one theme and concentrate on it. Boil it down to its bare essentials and use that as the basis of your flash story. What’s the purest expression of joy you can describe? The most terrifying horror? How did that situation develop, and what’s the end result?
Focus on one very specific idea and develop that in the words you have available, rather than weaving multiple themes together.
Have you ever listened to The Moth? These five-minute personal stories are incredibly gripping…and they’re short! Listen to a few stories and note how they condense personal experiences into a full story with a plot arc. Then borrow those ideas and your own life stories to create short fiction.
This is definitely one place where “write what you know” pays off—by using your personal experience as the basis for your flash fiction, you can cut out a lot of the background and just jump right in.
Strip it Down
Do we really need to know that your protagonist has four brothers? Does the villain have to strike five times, or will two be good enough to get your point across? Does every action have to be described as happening “suddenly,” or can you ditch that word and let the action speak for itself?
Writing flash fiction is all about trimming away everything that isn’t essential, whether that’s scenery, characters, plot points, or even individual words. It’s great training for getting rid of crutch words and learning to write more effectively!
Why Write Flash Fiction?
So why would anyone spend time writing such short work? Shouldn’t you be working on your next novel instead?
Well, yes and no.
Flash fiction is a great way to hone your writing skills. Because it’s so short, it’s incredibly challenging to create an engaging, satisfying story arc within flash fiction.
Many writers struggle with using too many adjectives or cluttering up their writing with unnecessary repetition. Flash fiction teaches you to make each and every word count.
Novels are always going to make you more money than flash fiction. After all, why would anyone want to pay you $4.99 to read 50 words?
But novels also take time to write—often a lot of time. Flash fiction isn’t easy, but it’s fast (relatively speaking). That means you can knock out a few flash fiction stories in a day and start spreading them around as part of your marketing efforts, getting your name and your work out to more people.
That’s the real key to flash fiction: it’s basically a writing exercise that you can also use as a marketing tool. Talk about doing double duty!
Promoting with Flash Fiction
The best way to sell books is to write even more books. By publishing multiple books, readers have more ways to discover your writing, enjoy it, and go looking for even more, increasing your sales and building your audience.
Writing books takes time, though—you can’t always publish quality, well-edited novels at a breakneck speed, fast enough to satisfy fans who want more of your work.
Flash fiction can fill that gap.
Because it’s so much quicker to write than a novel, you can release flash fiction in a continuous stream, filling in blank spaces between novel releases.
It’s also an easy, approachable way to get new readers hooked on your work—they don’t have to commit hours or days to reading a novel, just a few minutes on their commute or while waiting in line.
You can release flash fiction in a variety of places, including many online literary journals that will include a bio along with your story. You can use that bio to link to your books, giving new fans a way to get lots more of your writing.
Once you’ve started writing flash fiction, you can use it to promote your author career, including your full-length novels!
10 Ideas for Promoting with Flash Fiction
- Flash Fiction Friday: Release one or more flash fiction stories on your Twitter feed every week, tagged for easy searching.
- Design a cool Instagram graphic using one of your extra-short stories. Canva and PicMonkey make it easy to create fast, fun images that encourage sharing. Again, hashtag these for easy searching and increased sharing.
- Offer daily flash fiction to readers who subscribe to a specific sub-set of your email newsletter. You can segment your list so that only readers who really want a daily email will get one, then send those extra-engaged fans free mini-fiction every weekday.
- Send out submissions to free flash fiction websites and publications like Flash Fiction Magazine. You won’t be paid, but you’ll get your work in front of hundreds or thousands of readers who might not have discovered you otherwise. Research journals that accept super-short fiction at Poets & Writers.Be sure to include links to your paid work in your bio—even better if the paid work is in the same genre or setting as the free flash story.
- Write flash fiction about favorite secondary characters in your novels. Expand their stories little by little and draw in readers who want more of a character who might only show up briefly in your main work. Think of it like writing fanfiction of your own novels!
- Try out new settings or ideas for your work in micro-stories and test them with your readers. See which of the ideas gets the best feedback, then turn them into either longer stories, novellas, or full novels. Market research at its best!
- Write exclusive flash fiction content for your favorite book bloggers. Learn how to find book bloggers, then start establishing a good relationship. Bloggers always need new and interesting things for their site, so offering them free, exclusive flash fiction has a few benefits: you’re helping them engage their audience, you’re giving a lot of value to both the blogger and their readers, and you’re giving free samples of your work to help hook new fans. Tie the free stories in with the plot of the book you’re promoting and you’re able to cross-promote with your paid work even better.
- Cross-promote your series using flash fiction by including several short pieces in the back of each of your other novels, as long as you think the audiences might overlap. For instance, maybe don’t cross-promote between your horror and romance series, but feel free to cross between romance and sexy urban fantasy.By giving your readers a free taste of what you write in other series and maybe even other genres, you can encourage them to try out more of your work. And because it’s flash fiction, not a full short story or novella, you can offer them a few different options and several different pieces to enjoy without taking ages to write.
- Collect a month or a quarter’s worth of those Twitter and Instagram flash fiction releases into an ebook, then offer it as a free download when readers opt in to your email newsletter or sell it for 99 cents on Amazon to give new readers a way to find you.
- Team up with other authors who write in your genre to produce a flash fiction anthology. Because flash fiction is so short, it won’t take long to write a few pieces each, and you can release the collection as a perma-free book to help cross-promote each others’ work and get new fans.
Writing flash fiction can help you refine your style, promote your books, and win new fans.
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