The Challenge of Flash Fiction

If you ever hang around writers long enough, you will invariably hear them gripe about the difficulties of writing a novel. To be fair, a lot of those complaints have merit…

• A novel needs a larger number of characters to sustain it, each of whom must be memorable and develop as the story progresses (because in a novel with 100 characters, for example, the reader will always remember the 3 or 4 who were poorly developed).

• Unlike short stories, most novels need more than a single storyline to be engaging. Sub-plots are often used to spur character development and explore various ideas that can’t be handled in the central narrative, but everything must tie together by the end. This requires considerable planning on the writer’s part.

• And then there’s the time involved in writing the novel itself, editing, rewriting, more editing, and then sending it off in the hopes that someone will pick it up. And while you wait for a response, you start another novel…

But there are challenges to writing at the other end of the spectrum – the domain of flash fiction. Flash fiction, as the name implies, is fiction of a very brief nature – usually under 1,000 words. At first glance, you might think flash fiction would be incredibly easy to write because it’s so short, but therein lies the challenge: a flash fiction story still needs a plot, characters, and some sort of conflict that gets resolved (or at least promises to be resolved) by story’s end. However, there’s no space for purple prose, excessive adverbs, pages of internal monologue, or unnecessary characters. The writer has to be focused, and be prepared to make the reader work.

I tried my hand at very short (micro) flash fiction recently, for an annual contest called AE Micro. The word limit was 200 words (including the title), and the theme given was “space”. I managed to write the basic story in about 220 words, and then pared it back to accommodate some additional nuances (because the piece focused on action-oriented dialogue, and I still had to provide story background and give the reader an idea of the relationship between the two characters). Then I had to cut it back yet again to meet the word limit (which was firm). It was 199 words in the end.

While the piece didn’t make the cut in the end, it was still a rewarding experience because it forced me to really focus on the key elements of the story. That sort of discipline, if applied to short stories and novels, can only be helpful.

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