Every writer who writes flash has one of these lists, even if flash is not his area of expertise. Even if he doesn’t write it down, he keeps it in the back of his mind.
I tend to enjoy character-driven fiction, and I enjoy character-driven flash as well. You might think that flash offers too few words in which to develop good characters, but I believe that it is possible, if you focus your efforts.
Here’s my own list, which I keep in mind when I’m writing flash fiction and short-short stories.
- You only have room for one scene, so choose it well. Actually, it’s more like a half a scene, or even a quarter scene. There’s not enough room to tell the character’s life story. One setting, one moment, one change. What is the most important change that occurs in the character’s story? That is her defining moment, and that is what the scene must focus on.
- You only have room for one main character, so choose her well. What’s more, in a flash piece, this character has only one compelling need. Because flash fiction is about focus, all of her qualities focus themselves on supporting her single compelling need.
- You only have room for a single plot. This single story thread you spin directly from the main conflict. No secondary conflicts. No subplots.
- You only have room for a single, simple theme. I love stories that actually say something. And a novel can say two or three different things. It can explore interrelated themes with multiple interpretations. But not a flash story. You get to make one simple point on one theme, and everything else you need to leave for other stories.
- Get to the main conflict of the scene in the first sentence. This is your hook. You don’t have time to lallygag around, so get right into it. In as few words as possible, why do I care? Start with a bang and then increase the intensity. Don’t worry about running out of things to talk about or tiring out the reader; you’re more likely to encounter the converse problems.
- Skip as much of the backstory as you can. The reader usually doesn’t need to know how the character got to this point. And if he does absolutely need to know some part of the backstory, keep it as simple as possible, and imply as much of it as you can through its relation to the story. In a flash piece, you don’t need to explain everything to the reader. Let him figure it out himself through logical deduction.
- “Show” anything related to the main conflict. That is, “show”; don’t “tell” it. This is where you use up the bulk of your words. Ping-pong the primary plot. (I.e., write it in MRU’s.) Focus the story’s intensity here, and don’t let up. The story is too short to require easy-going interludes. Except…
- “Tell” the backstory; don’t “show” it. That is, any part of the backstory that you couldn’t get rid of, and you couldn’t leave to the imagination, because it actually builds the main conflict or explains a key plot point… If you have to go off on a tangent, at least gloss over it as quickly as possible.
- Save the twist until the end. Or rather, as soon as you’ve laid enough groundwork for the story’s climax, do the deed and get out of there. Skip the epilogue; you don’t need one. (Or if you absolutely must write an epilogue, try: “And they lived happily ever after.” But that’s an extra 6 words you probably didn’t need.)
- Eliminate all but the essential words. Get out your editor’s pen, and cross out any word that isn’t absolutely needed. If that means shorter, choppier sentences, that’s just fine, because it increases the tempo.
Naturally, I go against all these rules all the time. Because they’re not really rules. They’re tips. They’re lines on your storytelling map, but they’re not destinations in themselves. And part of writing fiction is having fun plotting your own course across that map.
* Find more from J. Timothy King at bethestory.com