I’m addicted to flash fiction. I enjoy the challenge of compacting a story into a thousand words or fewer—and watching other writers do it too!
But flash fiction is more than a method for writing quick, poignant stories. It’s an incredibly useful yet overlooked tool for refining your skills in general.
Because of its brevity, the focus of flash fiction is distinctive from a novel. Complicated subplots, huge character arcs, and purple prose can’t be squished into the uniquely small size. Flash fiction is story micro-science, making it ideal for zeroing in on three tricky areas of writing craft.
1. Play with Pacing
Though sentence pacing can be a struggle, every aspiring author needs to master it so readers won’t stumble through the story. Achieving the right flow will set your story eons above the competition, and flash fiction gives you a chance to practice without being overwhelmed.
In a novel with long chapters and numerous threads to untangle, the pacing can be hard to isolate, but in flash fiction you can easily evaluate individual sentences. If the pacing is off, you’ll notice for sure! Thrillers shouldn’t be full of sentences that wax eloquent since this will slow down a story that’s meant to be fast. And rapid, terse sentences aren’t suitable for romances, which should move along more leisurely. Consider how this excerpt sounds:
When my brother yelled my name, I ducked, and an orc’s blade sheered the air above my head. Then Terrak’s blade punched through its gut. I gasped out a breath as I straightened, and the orc crumpled.
“Thanks,” I said.
Terrak nodded, swiveled on his heel, and charged toward another orc. Blood stained the back of his shirt.
The short and snappy sentences indicate that this is an action piece. With effective pacing, you can communicate mood and genre, as well as heighten tension. Experiment with different genres of flash fiction and pay attention to how sentence structure affects each story. When in doubt, read your story aloud. It helps!
2. Capitalize on Characterization
A novel opens a doorway into an imaginary world, but flash fiction is like peeping through a keyhole. The limited view can’t accommodate dozens of characters, so you’re forced to concentrate on one. Since writing flash fiction is so quick, you can explore multiple personality types in one day and expand your understanding of character development.
How would an ex-assassin handle a zombie attack in light of his past? How would a military nurse think in contrast to the soldiers? What would happen if you wrote the same story from another character’s perspective? Analyzing how characters behave in specific situations will help you create realism—and if you write flash fiction about the protagonist in your existing novel, the results can be revealing. You’ll be able to tinker with her voice and see how she operates in different scenarios.
You can also work on forming an instant connection between readers and the protagonist, like you need to do in the first chapter of a book. Can you accomplish that before the story ends? If you succeed, you’ll be a pro at endearing your characters to readers at the beginning of a novel.
Lastly, flash fiction allows you to shape character arcs on a smaller scale. Arcs tend to be complex in novels, but in flash fiction they’re much simpler. The protagonist needs to change (whether a little or a lot) within a thousand words, but that’s all. You can then transfer the concepts you learned to bigger projects.
3. Persevere at Polishing
Crafting a good story in under a thousand words is extremely difficult. I’ve often overshot the goal and had to pare down my text. That annoyed me until I realized all the deletions sharpened my writing!
Every draft will contain unneeded fluff. But the constraints of flash fiction require you to weigh each word and sentence to determine whether it adds value. Cutting out the fat can be painful, but it will enhance your writing. For example, below is a paragraph I needed to revise because it was an info dump.
Before: I balanced the touchpad in one hand while I buckled up, barely glancing at the gloriously starry sky. After exploring uncharted galaxies with my brother for three years, stars had become commonplace. Jason and I had wanted to be ocean explorers when we were little so we could find the underwater city of Atlantis—but after our mom told us that everything under the ocean had already been discovered, we turned our eyes skyward. If we couldn’t find Atlantis, new planets were second best.
After: My GSP tablet lay propped on the dashboard, and the sky was gloriously starry up here within its glittering swirls. So different from where I’d imagined Jason and I would be when I was a little girl. I thought we’d be exploring the oceans, finding Atlantis. But uncharted planets had called our names.
Not only is the final version smoother and more concise, it’s almost half the length of the original. By slicing out the unnecessary, I strengthened my story. After writing (and tightening) flash fiction, you might be surprised how much better you’ll be at editing a novel!
Try Your Hand at Flash Fiction
Since flash fiction is fast and easy, you have no excuse not to use it to exercise your writing and editing skills. If you need prompts to grease your creative wheels, throw a character into an unusual setting or situation, such as a fashion designer in space, an ex-spy at a carnival, or a banker raiding tombs in Egypt.
Want to get your work in front of more eyes? Tons of places accept flash fiction submissions. Check out GoHavok.com, which is run by Christians, or DailyScienceFiction.com and FlashFictionOnline.com if you’re targeting the secular market.
Writing flash fiction is fun and can improve your story craft by leaps and bounds—it’s certainly done that for me. So what are you waiting for? Open a document or notebook and dive into the world of flash fiction!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 22, 2019. Updated May 16, 2022.
Savannah Grace is a Nebraska-born-and-raised author who loves writing—and reading—a good speculative story, because there’s no better place to escape than a book. When she’s not lost in (or creating!) other worlds, she can be found making a mess with watercolors, laughing way too loudly, or eating as much Korean food as she can get her hands on. She’s the submissions manager for Illuminate YA and an associate editor for Havok Publishing.
Savannah has had multiple short fiction pieces published in various places and loves helping writers hone their craft. You can find her blogging at savannahgracewrites.blogspot.com, posting sporadically on her YouTube channel (Savannah Grace), or finally finding a use for all her book pictures over on Instagram (@savannahgraceauthor). She’d love to chat with you!