Going Short: Ten Flash Fiction Tips for the Flash Curious

By Nancy Stohlman

There’s a revolution happening in literature: writers are going short.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve already heard of flash fiction, those tiny, compressed stories flourishing in the literary underground. Writers and readers are falling in love with the form and discovering something delightful and poignant in these small spaces.

Originally called sudden fiction, microfiction, nanofiction, or short shorts, flash fictions are ultra-compressed stories following only two rules: they must be under 1,000 words and they must tell a story. The result is a miniature narrative that creates an entire story experience in just a few well-placed brushstrokes. And the stories, far from trivial or lazy, have their finger on a new kind of urgency.Carving away the excess, flash fiction puts the short story through a literary dehydrator, leaving the meat without the fat.

This is an exciting time to be a flash fiction writer.In my book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, I explore how flash fiction has successfully broken the old story out of its skin and transformed it, cultivating not only a new kind of story but also a new kind of writer.  

So, whether you are flash curious or a flash veteran, here are 10 of my best tips as you embark on (or continue) your flash fiction journey.

  1. Become a beginner. This goes for any new artistic endeavor, but if you’re a poet, or a novelist, or even new to writing, embrace the glory of being a beginner. There will be an adjustment period, and that’s good! It’s so much easier to take risks and lower expectations. And when expectations are lowered, the real beginner’s magic can slip through the back door. Allow yourself the possibility of creative play—and creative discoveries.

2. Respect flash fiction as its own form. Flash fiction is not the bunny slope to something harder. It is not easier or less powerful or less profound just because it’s small. Bigger doesn’t always mean better. The bonsai tree is a marvel in miniature, requiring an entirely different set of skills. And just as learning from other genres can strengthen your existing work, learning from flash fiction will make you a better writer, regardless of your preferred genre.

3. Just because it’s short doesn’t mean it’s flash fiction. A lot of things are short—vignettes, character sketches, prose poetry. These may overlap with flash fiction, but they aren’t interchangeable. Prose poetry is a poem using sentences. Flash fiction is a compressed story with a narrative arc and movement. When in doubt, see rule #2

4. Don’t try to butcher a longer piece and pass it off as flash fiction. You might be able to pull this off one or twice (I did), but it’s a little bit like adding line breaks to a story and calling it poetry. Ultimately you want to start seeing the world through a flash fiction lens, noticing the potential for stories everywhere and honing your radar for great flash material.

5. The word limit matters. At first you might feel like you are battling the word limit. Eventually you will realize the word limit is the necessary container that allows the magic to happen. Without constraints, the story can expands in all directions like an amoeba. Strategically pushing against the constraints, the story realizes itself as flash fiction. Once you embrace the constraint as a vital part of the process, it won’t be an issue.

6. Think small but big. One of the joys of flash is the way it cuts to the essence of a story, distills it to its most concentrated components. It also means, as a reader, we get a quick, hard, but reverberating kick to the gut in just a few minutes (this is also why I don’t read flash before bed!). Flash fiction can distill the essence of so many types of stories: sad or joyous or absurd or dramatic or quiet. If you are having trouble narrowing the flash fiction lens, ask yourself—what is the most important 5 mins in this story? Now write just that.

7. Make every word count.  Flash fiction writers know that all description is not equal. There’s a difference between 100 roses in a vase and the exquisite perfection of a single rose. In flash fiction we let the single description to the heavy lifting. Tell us about the one rose, sitting on the end table as he closed the door for the last time.

8. Cut it in half. Once you have written your first flash, cut it in half. Force yourself to make tough, discerning choices about what is really necessary in your work. You will be amazed at what you don’t need to say.

9. Just because it’s small doesn’t meant it’s easy. Every time someone tries to dismiss flash fiction as a party trick for the “short attention span” crowd, a little piece of my soul dies. Using that logic, the short attention crowd should also be reading tons of poetry, right? Exactly. Flash fiction is not only its own genre but also its own art form. Small does not mean unsophisticated. Readers and writer of flash are highly skilled artists and masters of their genre—they choose to write flash. It isn’t an accident.

10. Read a lot of flash fiction. This is really the only way to cultivate an eye and instinct for what works and why it works. My best flash fiction education came from the 5 years I was a co-founder/editor of Fast Forward Press, reading hundreds of flash fiction submissions regularly. As with learning a new language, the only way to really become fluent is through immersion. And there are so many outlets now publishing amazing flash, both online and in print. Dive in and enjoy.

It’s all about letting go. Let go of your preconceived notions and your need to be good at it. Let go of extra description, backstory, clever or indulgent narration. Let go of long, meandering tangents. Let go of all the stories you have told yourself about flash fiction.

And when you sit down to write, let go inside those glorious constraints. Allow the magic of flash fiction to travel through you and onto the page. Remember: A flash story may be small, but that small space can hold the entire world.

Happy writing!

Nancy Stohlman is an award-winner author who’s been writing, publishing, and teaching flash fiction for nearly 15 years. Her books include The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, The Monster Opera, Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, and Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, which received the 2021 Readers View Gold Award. Her work has been anthologized widely, appearing in the W.W. Norton New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction and The Best Small Fictions 2019, as well as adapted for both stage and screen. She teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder and leads workshops and retreats around the world. Find out more at www.nancystohlman.com