Flash Fiction How To

I’ve had a few discussions lately about my Friday Flash fictions, so I thought I’d bring the conversation over here.

4/23/22 edit: Sadly, my friend Jimmie no longer posts prompts. He’s a fabulous writer, so please check him out in the link below!

Every Friday, a wonderful friend of mine, Jimmie Writes posts a picture on our Facebook group with a picture. I don’t even look at it on Fridays, because I have a day job and Friday nights are a sacred space for my husband and I. So, I start on Saturday mornings, when I meet with my local writing group. We meet at ten, and I give myself to the end of our meeting to finish the story. That gives me two hours.

Theoretically.

The people in this group are my tribe and I love them all deeply. By the time we get done catching up, I have significantly less than my two-hour allotment. In all honesty, probably about an hour, because by noon, I need to have it up so I can go on to other things.

So. How do I world build, develop conflict, develop character, and create a resolution within 250 words?

The key to it is to limit myself.

Cast of Characters- I get ONE POV character. ONE. I may have more characters to create conflict –an annoying little brother, a boardroom full of executives, or an annoying robot. But I only have the space to make readers care about one person. For instance in Lunar Visions, we have a fleet of aliens off screen. They’re important to the story, they give the protagonist a reason for our story. But they are entirely off screen. We also have two people in the scene, one of whom is pivotal to the conflict and a host of spear carriers. I find the little boy fascinating, and I’d love to know more about him, but he’s not the POV character. He gets to do his job, then he moves off screen to wait for his own story.

World building- It needs to be fast and dirty. I need to set the setting in the first sentence. This doesn’t fill the white room, but it sets the genre. Am I on a space station? Am I in the French Revolution? It needs to be specific. Something along the lines of “Tony hit the gas and felt the roar of his Formula One race car. He smiled and hoped it would go the distance.” See where that puts you? Compare it with “Tony hit the gas and felt the roar of his beat-up old Chevy. He smiled and hoped it would go the distance.” Three words make all the difference in my tone.

The Prompt is not “cover art.”- When I’m writing the flashes that my friend Jimmie sends out, I use the picture as more than just inspiration, I use it as a vital part of my world building. In Angell Brightmoon, I let the fact that there’s no station in the picture set the tone. Could I base my story on the planet? Sure. Maybe the story is about grateful colonists who just got resupplied. Maybe the ship is an escaped convict, or some angry sentient inhabitant of the planet who took over a colonist’s ship. The point is to make the prompt pull more load than short story or novel.

Make it a Monday Morning- Have you ever gotten to work, ready to start your week but instead everything hits that fan? That’s what needs to happen in your flash.  Stories are about facing conflict and either triumphing or failing. Much as I love “the shiny,” I don’t have time for it in flash. For instance in Bottled Spirits, the conflict is the first sentence. Get it out there, then hit your protagonist with stuff going wrong as often as you can. I’ve heard other authors say that in flash fiction you get 2-3 sentences to do this, and I think that’s valuable.

Know where I’m going. It helps if I have the ending in mind when I start, and sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t, and I have to figure it out as I go along. But once you have that idea, make everything in the story point to that.

Throw in an inside joke if you can- This is a bit of an odd one, and it is optional. But it’s a whole lot of fun. In Bottled Spirits there’s a line about going to bother Igor. Context tells you that the reference is to Igor Stravinsky. The inside joke is that when he premiered his now-famous work “Rite of Spring,” it literally sent the audience running for the exits. Is this crucial to the story? No. It’s just two dead composers arguing. But if you’re a classical music aficionado, you get the joke on a level that others don’t.

Again, this is not necessary. But I was reading a Mary Robinette Kowal book once that she describes as “Jane Austin with magic.” Right there in the middle of it was a Princess Bride reference. I suppose you could argue that it pulled me out of the story for a minute, but it was WELL worth it.

Edit, Edit, Edit- So, I’ve built my world, I’ve got my conflict, I have my ending, and I’ve thrown in a clever twist or inside joke. Realistically, if I use all the instructions above, I’ll still end up with somewhere around 280 words with a 250 limit. I trim the big ideas first, maybe take out the inside joke, or narrow the focus of protagonist.

I do it this way because it is important to me to get the story down so I know what is happening; then I can play with the voicing of the characters. In Project Management, Archangel Michael is leading the charge, and it’s reasonable to assume that a project leader would need to focus his team. This means I can make him more abrupt, giving some of his word count to someone we would expect to be more verbose, like the engineer.

For Example:

 Michael originally slid “a piece of parchment” across the table. When I ran out of words, he simply slid “a parchment.” Saves 2 words.

“We’re not here to debate why, we’re here to debate how,” becomes “Let’s focus.” Cut 9 words.

“It will take a millennium” became “It will take millennia.” This cuts one word, but it adds tension. In pluralizing our time frame, the next sentence makes their conflict much harder emotionally. Like using your prompt for double duty, sacrificing a word for extra tension is a great trade off.

I literally go word by word, because I don’t have many to play with, and math matters (Please don’t let my high school algebra teacher hear me admit to that.)

Get the thing Beta-read. It’s a flash fiction, so this won’t take long. When you’re working this tightly, it helps to have someone read it before you publish it. I use my husband. His usual comment is “I like it,” because he loves me, and he values his life. I then have to plug him with questions, and we talk about it for a bit. Again, it’s a flash fiction. It doesn’t take long. However, he has on occasion waved me off of something that is either offensive or so muddled that he can’t tell what I’m trying to say. REALLY IMPORTANT.

So, there you have it. I would love it if you would join us in the insanely fun world of flash fiction! Feel free to pick any of the pictures on my page, they all have attributions so you can see where they come from. Then please post your results and comment to me with the link! I’d love to see you give it a try.

I hope you are navigating these most difficult of times with faith, love, and good literature.

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