Want to improve your short stories – or help your students improve theirs? Flash fiction is a great way to start.
The enduring appeal of short stories
‘Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” Neil Gaiman.
In one form or another, the short story has always been with us. Ancient myths, legends, oral narratives, fairytales and fables are arguably the precursor of the modern short story. The work of Charles Perrault and Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm – collecting folk tales and defining them – and Antoine Galland’s translation of One Thousand and One Nights – helped to establish the narrative arc of story-telling and the archetypes and conventions associated with it.
In its modern form, the literary short story emerged in the 19th Century. ‘It has been argued that the honour [for the first modern short story] goes to Walter Scott’s story ‘The Two Drovers,’ published in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827,’ writes William Boyd in Prospect Magazine. As Boyd goes on to explain, the dominance of the novel in Britain early in the 19th Century meant the form didn’t gain quite as much momentum as it did in France, Russia and America in this period, but in the latter half of the 19th Century, the growth of printed journals and magazines created a demand for short fiction, filled in Britain by the likes of Thomas Hardy, Conan Doyle and Dickens, and in America by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe. In Russia, Anton Chekhov – perhaps the most influential writer of short stories in the period – introduced the idea of stories that resist the attempt to impose order; stories that reflect our haphazard lives, rather than disingenuously ordering them.
‘…with Chekhov and with the advent of the 20th century, the modern short story entered its golden age… the short story’s popularity grew and was subjected to the pressures and influence of modernism…’ William Boyd
Modernists such as James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield, writing in the early twentieth century, countered stark realism with a strong thematic and symbolic constituent, the latter dealing with taboo subjects and groundbreaking storytelling, covering subjects such as sexuality, abuse and deviation with an unprecedented openness. After the Second World War, Ernest Hemingway, JD Salinger, Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie found acclaim for their work thanks to publications such as The New Yorker and Esquire, at a time when such publications paid handsomely for short fiction.
In the 1980s, a number of anthologies brought together the best of what were essentially short-short stories, such as Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories, edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe in 1982 and Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas in 1983.
In the digital media age, the word count of the short-short story, or ‘flash fiction’ – usually around 350-1000 words in length – is ideally suited to the web and to being read on a smartphone or tablet. Flash fiction is consequently on-trend. The New Yorker has published a flash fiction series each summer for a few years now and the popularity of competitions such as The Bath Flash Fiction Award and The Bridgeport Prize have established a readership committed to the form.
‘…flash fiction may prove to be the ideal form of fiction for the 21st century, an age of shrinking attention spans and busy and distracted lives, in which our mobile devices connect us to the world as they simultaneously divert us from it.’ John Dufresne, Literary Hub
Having spent some time working with students of different ages on the craft of short-short fiction, I’ve gathered some suggestions which might work well when helping you – or your students – to plan, write and edit.
These suggestions are not, I should point out, intended to be a definitive index of quality when it comes to flash fiction. These are starting points for budding writers of flash fiction or for English teachers who want to sharpen their students’ story-telling and refine their way with the written word.
How to write flash fiction
1. Work out whose story it is and how you want to tell it
The most important decision to make is whose story you’re telling. When you’ve established this, you can then figure out the best way to tell it. Students and those new to writing often veer toward first-person narrative. But flash fiction, which is often characterised by a more urgent plot, can benefit from something different. Experiment with more authentic first-person voices, using appropriated forms such as the confessional, the instructional, or the unreliable narrator construct.
Get to grips with third-person, although be cautious with third-person omniscient when writing flash fiction. It’s too ‘epic’ and doesn’t always provide the short-short story writer with a tool to truly focus on a single emotion, experience or character. Practice writing in third-person objective, like Raymond Carver. In his short story ‘They’re Not Your Husband’, Carver reveals character only through what people do, look like and say. He describes people and places detachedly, rather than expressing his characters’ perceptions or feelings through the voice of the narrator. Focusing on the showing – and stripping away the telling – allows the reader to do some of the heavy lifting.
Experiment with third-person subjective, sometimes called third-person limited, as this provides a very disciplined way to write. In this mode, it’s important to limit the narrative perspective to one character, as Graham Greene does in his short-short story ‘I Spy’. Throughout the story, Greene strictly maintains the point of view of twelve year old Charlie Stowe, as he surreptitiously enters his father’s shop in dead of night to embezzle some tobacco. At no point does the narrative switch to anything beyond Charlie’s immediate perceptions.
‘The wind blew from the sea, and Charlie Stowe could hear behind his mother’s snores the beating of the waves. A draught through the cracks in the window-frame stirred his nightshirt. Charlie Stowe was frightened.’ Graham Greene, ‘I Spy’.
Practice third-person objective and third-person subjective before progressing to other third-person modes such as interior monologue or free indirect style.
‘Character is at the heart of the short story form. Characters in short fiction are often outsiders, on the margins, or isolated. But the short story invites us into their — often unreliable — point of view. If you’re stuck with where to start writing a short story, begin with inventing a main character.’ Ariella van Luyn
2. Before starting to write, think very carefully about structure.
‘Prose is architecture. It’s not interior design.’ – Ernest Hemingway
The best short stories are constructed very deliberately. Pay close attention to which elements of narrative structure are going to be absolutely necessary for your story. Spend time deconstructing stories – in both print and in moving image – that you’re are already familiar with. Some short-short stories, might, for instance, utilise all aspects of the archetypal narrative sequence, such as Angela Carter’s ‘The Werewolf’. Other stories might cast the sequence in a different order. The briefest fiction will likely omit some of the stages altogether, or focus on one of them.
Tara Laskowski, editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, an online journal dedicated to flash fiction, argues that ‘one of our biggest critiques about stories is that they don’t feel like flash. They… feel like scenes from a longer piece.’
3. Limit the time frame.
‘…if the novel is a marathon and the short story is a 5K, then flash fiction is a 100-meter dash. You use the same tools, but they are very different in training, approach, and execution.’ Bradley Babendir
The best flash fictions usually encompass only a very short slice of the main character’s life. Avoid telling the reader about the character. The whole piece must instead reveal the character to the reader, like when we observe a diner at a nearby table in a restaurant or another passenger on the bus that’s stuck in traffic next to ours.
Limit the scope of a piece of flash fiction to a short time frame, especially when you’re first experimenting with the form. George Saunders’ ‘Sticks’ – a really effective micro-fiction (even shorter than flash; usually around 5-350 words) – shows that in the hands of an experienced writer, even short-short-short fiction – the literary equivalent of a pair of Daisy Dukes – can deal successfully with the passage of time. But for writers starting out with flash fiction, it’s a valuable exercise in discipline to write about a very short period of time. It will undoubtedly help you to follow the old adage about showing, rather than telling.
Ann Enright, in her excellent flash fiction ‘The Weight’, describes the dawning realisation of a passenger whose is in trouble. The whole story is limited to a brief duration in the life of the character. A helpful exercise might be to take a favourite scene from a film and write the scene as prose. In terms of handling transitions between time and place, think about your writing as if it were a sequence of film. Cormac McCarthy handles his prose cinematically: he writes in scenes. When using a third-person subjective narrator, a switch in location or time can be dealt with via a line break.
4. Get straight down to business.
The opening salvo of a novella can be a beautifully wrought – and often extended -description, such as in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (‘A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green’). In a longer short story such as ‘Brokeback Mountain’ – where Annie Proulx stretches the limit of the short story almost to the novelette – backstory can work very well. But unlike a traditional short story, which might be in the region of 1,000-7,500 words, there’s no time in flash fiction for elaborate scene setting or backstory. Flash fiction generally clocks in at somewhere between 350-1,000 words. This means that the reader needs to be pulled in immediately.
It can work well to begin a story with an action. The aforementioned ‘Sticks’, by George Saunders, doesn’t mess about, immersing the reader into a sequence of actions with the past tense verbs ‘flocked’, ‘dragged’ and ‘draped’, which even in themselves, tell us a huge amount about the relationship between the children in the story and their father.
‘Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard.’ ‘Sticks’ by George Saunders.
‘It’s easy enough to slip the skin. Wedge your knife below the bumpy ridge of spine to separate cartilage from fat; loosen tendon from pink, sticky meat. Flay everything open. Pry free the heart. It takes some nerve. What I mean is, it’ll hurt, but you can get at what you crave if you want it badly enough.’ ‘Gator Butchering for Beginners’ by Kristen Arnett.
In class, I’ve encourage my own students to play around with possible openings. Here, three different students have crafted opening sentences that are firmly oriented in action.
5. Drop an emotional anchor.
‘Try simplifying your story so that you focus on one idea or emotion.’ Richard Thomas, Storyville: How to Write Flash Fiction, Lit Reactor
Just because you should refrain from allowing your characters to engage in too much emotional over-sharing doesn’t mean the story mustn’t explore powerful emotion. An epic novel might paint, in broad brushstrokes, love, redemption, justice. But more specific emotions work better in the minutiae of a short-short story. In her flash fiction ‘Conditions for Growing’, Beckie Dashiell explores the emotion of envy, closely followed by regret. Because of this focus on some very specific emotions and the way these play out, the story lingers long after you’ve put it down.
The most effective short stories can evoke very deep emotions in the reader. One way to achieve this is to combine both internal conflict and external conflict. Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes’ is a superb example of a writer exploiting both a character’s internal conflict and an external conflict that brings the inner conflict to the fore. In defending his son from an over-zealous parent, the central character’s pride is closely followed by a lingering grief and, ultimately, a need to connect to his son.
6. Offer irresolution rather than resolution.
Chekhov’s idea of disorder – of writing narratives that don’t help us to make sense of the world around us, but rather, which problematise it – is a great place to take your flash fiction. Anne Enright ends ‘The Weight’ with a profound moment of urgent realisation that leaves the reader gasping.
‘And when she looked down at him—because he was almost directly below her now—she saw something she had not seen since her babies each opened their eyes for the first time. A full human being. Utterly himself. A new person in her life. And what use was that to her now?’ ‘The Weight’ by Anne Enright.
End your own story with the climax, as this will offer a high impact ending that works well in the context of flash fiction. This can be a moment of profound realisation or even an ambiguity. Again it’s important to let the reader do some of the work. In this example, from on of my own students, an image from the opening paragraph of the story, the lighter, is repeated in the last paragraph, where it acquires a new significance.
7. Deploy some nice imagery – but don’t get carried away.
To borrow Hemingway’s metaphor, if the architecture is right – and in a story, it’s got to be solid – there’s no need for too much in the way of soft furnishings. However, in a well-turned story, the perfect image which creates a resonant emotional response, can be perfect. In ‘Courage’, published in 2019 summer series of flash fiction in The New Yorker, Daniel Smith concludes his story with the line ‘Under the great sweeping Western sky, among the cattle and the mountains bathed in red light, was it really herself whom she loved most of all?’ This final line contrasts very effectively with the anxious, questioning tone the author has constructed so carefully for the character throughout much of the story.
8. Craft spare, meaningful dialogue.
Keep dialogue simple and naturalistic and learn how to punctuate it. Make sure dialogue tags are unobtrusive and allow the dialogue to flow by avoid overly elaborate synonyms for ‘she said.’ Use adverbial tags sparingly.
9. Edit hard.
Having drafted, proof-read, edited and re-drafted, let the story sit for a few days, or even longer, to read it with a fresh pair of eyes. When you revisit it, don’t be afraid to cut any redundant elements, at either the level of the whole text, or right down at word level.
‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ by Brian Aldiss.
‘I Sing the Body Electric’ by Raymond Bradbury.
‘A Drowning Incident’ by Cormac McCarthy.
‘Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes’ by Raymond Carver
‘Up In Michigan’ by Ernest Hemingway
Short-short stories, or flash fiction
‘Gator Butchering for Beginners’ by Kristen Arnett.
‘Little Things’ by Raymond Carver
‘Conditions for Growing’ by Beckie Dashiell
‘The Weight’ by Ann Enright
‘Have You Ever Met One?’ by Rivka Galchen
‘The Hostage’ by Amelia Gray
‘I Spy’ by Graham Greene
‘Courage’ by Daniel Smith
‘Sticks’ by George Saunders.
‘The Godmother of Flash Fiction’ (a profile of Diane Williams) by Bradley Babendir in The Paris Review.
‘A Short History of the Short Story’ by William Boyd in Prospect Magazine.
‘Stories In Your Pocket: how to write flash fiction’ by David Gaffney in The Guardian.
Confictionarium – some of my own students’ flash fiction on our blog.
SmokeLong Quarterly, an online journal dedicated to flash fiction.