When Less is More

I reread the blurb for the flash fiction writing contest several times. It was the perfect antidote for the lingering writer’s block that was preventing me from moving forward with the next book. The entry fee was a bargain— three flash fiction stories for only $15—and the $500 prize added to the contest’s appeal.

I resurrected two unpublished stories from my files. Only one problem—both were close to 1500 words and the rules for the contest specifically called for flash fiction of less than 500 words. While some writers may balk at the idea of trimming almost 1000 words from a short story, I welcomed the challenge of revamping both manuscripts. But before starting the whittling down process, I decided to research this style of fictional literature.

There is no widely accepted name or length for flash fiction. In North America such terms as short short story, postcard fiction, micro-story, and sudden fiction are bandied about. In France, these shorts are called nouvelles, while the Chinese like to use an assortment of terms: little short story, pocket-size story, minute-long story, palm-sized story, and smoke-long story.

cigarette-smokingI was intrigued by the notion that a reader should be able to finish reading the story in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Fortunately, there aren’t too many smokers in my circle, so I decided to informally survey staff taking breaks at a nearby nursing home. I discovered that smokers could take anywhere from four to fifteen minutes to smoke a cigarette. When I timed my  493-word story, I found that it took several seconds less than five minutes to read.

Some writing markets and contests impose caps as low as 25 words while others consider stories as long as 1000 words to be flash fiction. Regardless of the definition or length, one fact remains: Writers must be able to capture the essence of a complete story—not an idea for a story or a slice-of-life vignette— with a minimum of well-chosen words and let readers fill in their own descriptions and back story.

Some tips…

  • Look for smaller ideas. Instead of dissecting an entire relationship, focus on the first date, the break-up, or the decision to live together. Other options could include basing the story on a fairy tale, using prompts from workshops, or adding more details to a joke with a good punch line.
  • Introduce one conflict and resolve it. Too many story lines will distract the reader and leave her hanging at the end. While it is not necessary to have a “happily ever after” ending, there must be some form of resolution.
  • Avoid lengthy preambles and start at the point of conflict. Keep in mind that the story’s tension does not necessarily have to involve a hero and villain. It could be verbal, physical, or mental.
  • Include at least one powerful image. A deserted street. A weapon. A discarded engagement ring. A spectacular sunset.
  • Limit the number of characters. There isn’t room for more than two characters, three at most. Do not waste too much time on names for your characters. Unless the name contributes to the plot or conveys additional information, omit it entirely.
  • Use dialogue to describe the characters and create conflict. With two well-defined characters, it is not necessary to use dialogue tags. To maximize the effect, let the dialogue describe the characters and create conflict:
  • Grab the reader’s attention with phrases, one-word sentences, and punctuation. Recall Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Using only a handful of words, he evoked the image of a grieving parent writing that classified ad for a newspaper.babyshoes
  • Use active verbs and limit the number of adjectives and adverbs. Consider using a red marker to slash every adjective and adverb in the story. When you read the piece aloud, you will be amazed at how much emotion can be conveyed without all those descriptive words.
  • End the story with a twist that is unexpected and offers emotional impact, but be careful not to overwhelm the reader with miracles or extraordinary events. At the end of the story, the reader should be smiling and thinking “Ah, yes!” If she is frowning or scratching her head, the resolution is not an effective one.
  • Write the first draft as quickly as possible. Don’t worry about grammar or the word count. Imagining a fifty-word or five-hundred-word cap will limit your thinking and creativity. Instead, write long and then go short.
  • Ensure that you have a clear beginning, a strong center, and a definitive ending. If you cannot easily identify these parts, then you have not written a complete story.story3parts2
  • Avoid a crowded effect. If the trimming succeeds only in squishing the original conflict, reconsider the story line. The reader should not feel rushed when reading flash fiction. Instead, there should be enough space for the original idea to resonate and expand in the reader’s mind.
  • Work your title. In many contests, the title is not considered part of the word count. Why not use the title to release additional information about the plot or characters.

The following piece from Harvey Stanbrough is an excellent example of flash fiction (55 words).

At Confession

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

“How long since your last confession?”

“Two years.”

“What’s the trouble?”

“I have wished death on a man.”

“You haven’t acted on your wish?”

“Not yet.”

“Who is the man?”

“He is cheating with my wife.”

The priest paled. “I forgive you.”

I shot him through the screen.

Colors of fall



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12 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting post, Joanne. I’m not into short, but I see why lots of folks are. I shared. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Marsha! 🙂


  2. I love this. I enjoy writing shorter to break up the overwhelming feeling of writing larger books.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Veronica, Those “short breaks” help revitalize me as well. Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. vicki says:

    I write short and many people say they can’t but you can learn how. The story is down to a simpler plot with lesser characters. If the word count is a specific number like 800 for worman’s world you edit and edit until reaching that goal. Then word choice is very important. Maybe an adjective, maybe not. Maybe a better verb. Writing short is a lot of fun.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Vicki, Writing short is a skill and it sounds like you’ve mastered it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the great tips, Joanne. I’ve never tried a short story, but both of your examples above are so powerful they make me want to give it a shot!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Go for it, Jacquie! Hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving weekend. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sharon Wray says:

    Love this, Joanne. I write really long books and am always looking for ways to cut! Thanks. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome, Sharon! 🙂


  7. Pat Amsden says:

    I loved the short story at the end. So much packed into so few words and a zinger at the end! It’s a good way of trying out new ideas or characters without having to do a whole book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Strongly agree! Whenever I’ve stumped, I turn to Haiku or poetry. Short breaks help! Thanks for dropping by, Pat 🙂


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