Getting into Flash Fiction, Quickly
By Scot Noel
Flash fiction is generally thought of as a very short piece of writing, ranging from a few words or sentences (micro fiction) to a full 1,000 words on the longer end.
But how do you take a story and whittle away more than two thirds of it, yet end up with something that’s worth reading?
Very, very carefully.
Actually, cutting and “killing your darlings” is only a part of it, and not even the most important part. Let’s see if we can flash into flash fiction with a few short instructions.
A Unified Effect
You hear a lot about unity of effect in writing; it’s the idea of deciding on a theme, idea, message or emotion, something you want your reader to experience. Once chosen, you then bend each element of the story to support that goal.
My story “Walker in Leaves” opens as follows:
Soft rains, given time, have rounded the angles of great towers.  Generation after generation, wind borne seeds have brought down cities amid the gentle tangle of their roots.  All statues of stone have been worn away.
How do these words make you feel? The intended effect I wanted from the story was one of reminiscence and lullaby. Throughout the story the last human consciousness is fading into the sleep of eternity, and the words on the page are crafted to make you feel it!
Everything from the story’s title to its language, scenes, dialog, and characters were chosen specifically to support and intensify that effect. 
Perhaps more than any other type of fiction, flash fiction must focus on its unified effect and drive to it with all due speed. 
A Simplified Structure
If you’ve practiced with our general story template in The Plotting Game, then you know we think of stories as built on a very specific structure. They start with “orientation,” define “character flaws,” move past a “threshold event,” and enter the well known “try/fail cycle” before reaching their climax and conclusion.
In flash fiction, you don’t have time for all that. Your only option is to pick a scene and bring it to life. That doesn’t mean the entire structure is abandoned; it just can’t be on the page. Things that happen before the “now” of your piece may only be hinted at. It’s the same with things that come after.
In my flash fiction piece “The Lost Soul,” the second paragraph goes like this:
Obadiah felt a chill.  The fingers of the wind were playing ill-mannered games with his night clothes, just as the clouds, in passing, had seen fit to tear down homes and harvests throughout the valley.
The idea here is that “big things have already passed.” It signals to the reader that the climax for Obadiah is just ahead. 
Pick the most critical scene for your flash piece, and hint at the traditional story elements that might have come before or will take place after.
Carefully Pick Your Words (even the title)
The title of a flash piece carries a lot of weight. I’m not particularly good at it, but here is one I love: “Gator Butchering for Beginners,” by Kristen Arnett. In those four words we have immediate intrigue and engagement, the promise of a unified effect, and a drive toward a meaningful point yet to be imagined.
Keep that idea going, sentence by sentence. 
In my flash piece “A Stillness of Trumpets,” it only takes one sentence for us to visualize the position of our protagonist, SFC Pero, and the kind of day she is going through. 
She had already done all she could, buried the last of her squad in the ashes outside, even stopped to deliver a baby beneath a darkened, midday sun.
Remember, you’re not bringing the reader through a try/fail cycle. The first conflict may have happened before your manuscript starts, and the climax may happen after the last text on the page is over. 
As the author, you should know the “story structure,” but flash does not need to follow it. It may be that all we’re going to learn is about your protagonist’s inner demon, but learn about it in a powerful and clarifying moment that is worth reading in itself.
Deliver the Punch
What’s at the end? Is it a joke, an emotion, a horrible realization, a statement of what it all means to handily tie up the intended effect?
The ending of flash fiction is not necessarily the denouement of a more traditional story. 
It’s the twist, the slap in the face, the scream that says “that…that’s what this is all about.” 
Of course, it doesn’t have to be loud and brash. I used those word to signal something impactful. Something like this, again from “The Lost Soul.”
The world was a mote within a mote and all of history a second within a second, and seeing the whispered smallness of all he had ever known, Obadiah began at last to smile and, happily, thereafter to weep.
Polish, Cut, Hone it Sharp
For most of us, it can be easier to write it long and trim it back. That’s OK. Once your work starts to take shape on paper, finding what’s absolutely essential and what can be trimmed to sharpen the tale is only a relaxing drink and a red pen away.
Hone the tale to only what’s needed to bring the reader quickly to that impactful ending you’ve been planning. Make them cry. Make them wonder. Make them say “right about that, baby!”
And do it all, like these instructions, in under 1,000 words.
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Getting into Flash Fiction, Quickly © 2022 Scot Noel