Writing

Writing 101: What Is Flash Fiction? Learn How To Write Flash Fiction in 7 Steps

Written by MasterClass

May 15, 2019 • 3 min read

Flash fiction is a favored genre among the English-speaking world’s most celebrated writers for its ability to convey deep truths and universal human emotions in just a few short paragraphs. When done well, flash fiction can convey deep truths and resonate with readers from all walks of life.

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What Is Flash Fiction?

Flash fiction is a genre of fiction, defined as a very short story. While there is no set word count that separates flash fiction from more traditional short stories, flash fiction stories can be as short as a few words (while short stories typically run for several pages). Flash fiction is also known as sudden fiction, short-short stories, microfiction, or microstories.

3 Characteristics of Flash Fiction

Flash fiction stories share a number of common characteristics.

  • Brevity. Flash fiction compresses an entire story into the space of a few paragraphs. There is no defined word count for flash fiction, but some commonly used word limits in flash fiction range from just six words on the short end to around 1,000 words on the longer end.
  • A complete plot. A flash fiction story is indeed a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. This sets it apart from a prose poem or vignette, which can explore an emotion, memory, or thought without a plot.
  • Surprise. Great flash fiction often incorporates surprise, usually in the form of a twist ending or an unexpected last line. This is not a gimmick: the aim is to prompt the reader to think deeply about the true meaning of the story.

What Are the Origins of Flash Fiction?

Flash fiction dates back to the time of fables and parables. The form was popularized in the nineteenth century by writers like Walt Whitman, Kate Chopin, and Ambrose Bierce. Perhaps the best-known flash fiction story is from this time (although frequently misattributed to Ernest Hemingway). The entire story is six words long:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The amount of emotion packed into these words inspired many writers to try their hand at the genre. In the 1980s, Robert Shepard and James Thomas published a set of anthologies of flash fiction called Sudden Fiction, which spurred another resurgence of the form. Another highly influential anthology was Flash Fiction, published in 1992 by W. W. Norton. It features 72 flash fiction stories and was edited by Tom Hazuka, Denise Thomas, and James Thomas.
Well known contemporary flash fiction writers include Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Jamaica Kincaid, Joy Williams, and Stuart Dybek. The literary magazine SmokeLong Quarterly, founded in 2003, is a dedicated flash fiction magazine, publishing stories of 1,000 words or less.

Learn How To Write Flash Fiction in 6 Steps

Writing flash fiction can be an exercise in creative restraint, whether you intend your work for publication or just as an exercise. Here’s a quick guide on how to get started.

  1. Use strong imagery. Make every single word count. Help your readers visualize as much as possible.
  2. Stick to one moment. Focus on one particular moment in time. Don’t try to cram in more than one scene into a piece of flash fiction.
  3. Work with just one or two characters. Don’t spread your story too thin. If you find yourself needing more than two characters or two scenes, your story may be better suited to the short story format.
  4. Try first person point of view. This will create an instant connection to the reader and allow you to express more in fewer words.
  5. Surprise your reader. Make sure to end your story on a different emotional note than the one you started on. Creating surprise is what flash fiction is all about; take the reader on a journey, no matter how short.
  6. Make good use of your title. When you have so few words to work with, your title can pack a punch. Take Joyce Carol Oates’s flash fiction story Widow’s First Year. The story reads, simply: “I kept myself alive.”

Learn more about writing short fiction from Neil Gaiman here.