There are various definitions of what flash fiction is, but for our purposes here, let’s just say that flash fiction means a very short story, usually less than 1000 words. This is a good type of story for a blog or website since people do not usually browse the internet looking for 20,000-word stories to read.
Does this mean that flash fiction is easier to write than longer stories? No, unfortunately. If anything, it can be harder to fit a whole story into a small space. But we will look at types of short fiction and tips on writing them.
Types of short fiction
It might seem that all short fiction is the same (after all, it’s short and it’s fiction) but I have picked out several kinds to look at.
The Screenshot (or scene)
We could argue if this is actually a story but it is a piece of fictional writing. The point of this type of writing is to paint one scene of a story. It might have action, characters, settings, etc. but it is more like drawing a picture than making a movie. Here’s an example:
The school looked like a castle as I walked towards it, the towers on each side of the doors holding all kinds of mysteries and horrors that my imagination was too willing to supply. A few other students walked up the steps around me, talking quietly or looking at their phones. I entered through the main gate and then I was inside, the smell of chalk and history rising up to greet me. Would I emerge a prince or a prisoner? I had no idea.
This could be the beginning of a longer story about someone’s first day at a new school. By itself though, it is a screenshot of one moment of time. There is the idea of conflict (he is at a new school and is nervous about it), but there is no plot because the conflict doesn’t go anywhere. We don’t find out if the school is actually really nice or if it is a scary place and what the main character does about it.
This type of short fiction is a real story in that it has conflict, plus a beginning, a middle and an end, even if it’s very short. However, it is self-contained, not necessarily connected to a larger story. Think about this as the kind of story you might tell your friends or family about something that happened to you that day, a story that might start, “A funny thing happened to me on the way home from school…”
The mermaid book club was at their weekly meeting, eating kelp sandwiches and drinking plankton tea. They were discussing Moby Dick (again) when the door was ripped off its hinges. Tentacles boiled into the room, grabbing everything they touched.
Ariel threw the book at it (literally) and Ardis tied two of the tentacles in knots. Mana swam out a window to see a giant octopus at the front door. She punched the octopus in the head until it got dizzy and finally it swam away. The house was a mess but the group agreed that octopus wrestling had been much more fun than reading Moby Dick again.
As you see, this has all the parts of a story: action, characters, setting, conflict. It has a beginning, middle and an end. But it’s also a very self-contained story, in that it is just telling what happened at one place and time. It is not necessarily tied to any larger story (although we could imagine a lot more about a world where mermaids meet to talk about books).
The Window Story
This is my own term for this kind of story. Think about if you look through a window. The window is not very big but what you see through the window is much, much larger. You might be able to see a large part of the universe through it, in fact. This is the idea behind a window story. It is short but it still gives the reader a picture of a much bigger story.
In this way, a window story is a combination of a screenshot and an anecdote. It is trying to be a complete story but also hint at a much larger story at the same time.
Big Sister Loves You
The phone rang immediately. Of course.
Be strong. I picked up the receiver.
“Josh,” the female voice said. “You covered your camera again.”
“Look, I’m just not comfortable—“
“Josh.” She was chiding. “It’s for your own good. How many lives does SIS save?”
Everyone knew the statistics. Special Interior Surveillance saved 47,000 lives a year. They said.
“What if you have another panic attack? Like last month? We need to see to help you.”
My chest was already tightening at the thought. “Okay,” I mumbled.
She made a kissing noise into the phone. “Thanks, Josh. SIS loves you, remember?”
This just tells the story of one short phone call, but it opens up a whole bigger world, in which everyone is being watched all the time by a group called SIS, who is there to help you. The story is far from over: after all, the conflict is not resolved. Josh is still being watched all the time and not liking it, even if it’s for his own good. There is clearly a lot more going on but it’s up the reader to fill in the rest.
How to write a window story
I’m going to spend the rest of this post talking about how to write the third type of flash fiction, the window story. That is because it is by far the hardest to do. A screenshot and anecdote are short for a reason: for a screenshot it is short since it is only one scene, one picture inside a larger story so there’s not as much to say about it. An anecdote is short because it was a short event that started and then ended.
A window story, on the other hand, is short because we choose to make it short. It’s the sort of story that could be novel but we decide to cut it down to only a few hundred words (or only 100 exactly if you really want a challenge).
Here are some tips on writing a good window story.
You don’t have a lot of words to tell your story, so jump right in. Sometimes, if it’s a weird situation, it might be good to just state it at the beginning. For example, “When your wife turns into a literal tiger in the library, it really changes your day.” If it’s an action-heavy story, jump right into it. If it’s one that really depends on a unique setting or character, start with that. In other words, go full throttle from the beginning. You don’t have time to ease into the story with flash fiction.
Use Strong Words
This is good advice for any writing but is especially true with flash fiction. Let’s imagine that with flash fiction, you have to spend $100 for each word you use. You would be very careful to use the words that helped your story the most. This might take using a dictionary or a thesaurus (however, make sure you know exactly what a word means before using it!).
For example: the angry crowd vs. the rabid crowd
Rabid means having rabies so it gives the picture of being totally insane, wild, frenzied, etc. That one word brings a very clear picture with it so it is much stronger than just saying angry.
A note of caution: remember who you are writing for. Flash fiction is a great place to use references to things that will paint a picture for you, such as rabid, like I just mentioned. But if your readers don’t know what rabies is, then it won’t help make the story better.
Another example is the word Sisyphean which is a fun one to say. This is an adjective that comes from the Greek myth about Sisyphus, who had to keep pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down just before the top. So, the meaning of Sisyphean is something you have to keep doing over and over again even though you can never succeed. It’s a very strong word, but there’s no point in using it if your readers wouldn’t know anything about Greek mythology.
Subtext is Your Friend
Subtext means the part of story that you don’t say but only hint at. It’s when you “read between the lines”, as they say. For example:
The teacher looked at my test. “Make sure you read the questions carefully,” she announced to the class.
The subtext here is that the main character had not read the questions and had made some major mistake on his test. By not saying that plainly, you are trusting the reader to make that connection.
The window story usually has to use at least some subtext. The reason is that we are trying to fit a big story into a small amount of words. You don’t have the room to say everything plainly so you have to hint at things to let the reader fill in the spaces.
End with a Punch
Not a literal punch, but just like you want to start strong, you want to end strong, too. Think about what you are trying to say with your story and make sure to reinforce it at the end to leave the reader with something to think about.
Examples of Window Stories
I am part of a group called the Friday Fictioneers, run by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Every week, she posts a picture and the challenge is to write a 100-word story about it: a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Here are two examples of stories I have written for it. I’m not saying these are the best examples of window stories, but they are mine so I can use them freely. Normally I don’t explain my stories but I will here.
The Family Legacy
The basement stank of burned flesh.
“It’s a gateway to outside our world,” my dad said, pointing to the hole. “They never stop coming, but light attracts them.”
I adjusted my night vision goggles. “Can we block it up?”
“You don’t think I’ve tried?”
A stygian tendril snaked out. Dad’s machete came down, severing it cleanly. I heard a shriek.
“They do that sometimes.” He tossed the writhing limb into the incinerator.
“What if they’re intelligent, if they need help?”
“We can’t risk it,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. All blood is black in the dark.”
The story: A father brings his son to the basement of their house. There is a hole in the wall that is a portal to another world that has monsters in it. The father has been fighting to keep the monsters from invading our world all his life and now he is teaching the son to continue the fight.
The start: The first sentence gives the setting and the tone. It’s in a basement, so we already think of dark and dirt and burned flesh is a scary image as well.
Strong words: stygian, comes from the River Styx in Greek mythology. It is the river that borders the land of the dead, so this paints a picture of a dark underworld
Sub-text: night vision goggles. This tells us they are working in almost total darkness; incinerator: this could mean that there are enough monsters that he can’t just put them in the trash or that he needs to burn them immediately to keep them from regenerating.
The ending: besides the conflict of monsters coming through the basement wall, the other main conflict of this story is between the father’s acceptance that these things have to be killed and the son’s desire to learn more about them in case they are good or in trouble. We don’t know who is right, but the last line “all blood is black in the dark” is a reinforcement of the father’s view. After all black blood suggests monsters and if you leave the matter in the dark by not investigating it, it is easy to call them monsters and treat them as that.
Mia watched the shadow in growing frustration. Her mother was speaking in their shadow sign language, but the silhouette of her blowing hair kept obscuring her hands.
“I can’t understand!” Mia shouted.
Her mother’s hands dropped, then formed a heart.
A cloud passed over. When the sun reappeared, she was gone.
Mia’s father found her sobbing ten minutes later.
“I just want to see her again.”
“Me too,” he said. “But she’s dead, honey. I envy your gift of seeing her shade in full sunlight.”
He surreptitiously picked a long wig hair from his sleeve and went to hug her.
The story: The mother has died, but the daughter can see a shadow of her ghost from her window who she communicates (with difficulty) through sign language. At the end, we find out that it is really the father pretending to be the dead mother’s spirit in order to comfort the daughter.
The start: The first sentence introduces the main character and the main action, as well as her mood.
Strong words: silhouette, this lets us imagine a perfect outline of the woman on the grass, not just a vague shadow; surreptitiously, this means in a sneaky way where he is trying not to be noticed. It shows he is doing something he is trying to hide.
Sub-text: He surreptitiously picked a long wig hair from his sleeve. This is the twist of the story, right at the end. Why does he have a wig hair on his sleeve? It’s because he was wearing a wig. Why would he do that? He must have been pretending to be the mother.
The ending: This has a twist ending, when we find out the “ghost” is just the father pretending to be the dead mother, even though the girl does not know. If you have a twist ending in flash fiction, it’s best to leave it to the very end to give it more impact.
Now it’s your turn
Try writing your own window story. It doesn’t have to be 100 words, but it should be less than 1000 words. Think of a story, and write it, then see how you can make it tighter (and shorter) by using stronger words and hinting at some parts instead of stating them plainly.
Also, flash fiction is a great to experiment. Try different ways to tell a story. Even if it doesn’t work, you can just write another story.
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.