Five Flash Fiction Elements

flash fiction lightningAs I hope you all know, here at Indies Unlimited, we have a weekly flash fiction contest. The prompt goes up on Saturday, and the submission period closes on Tuesday. The word limit for our contest is 250 words. But there’s more to flash fiction than just our challenge.

As a general rule, flash fiction is considered to be less than 1,000 words long. And believe it or not, you can study how to write it. I did a web search for “how to write a flash fiction story” and got five million hits, including some for courses that would take way longer to complete than would simply writing a bunch of flash pieces until you get the hang of it.

Flash is a recognized format for fiction, with elements that each story ought to include. As usual with these sorts of things, the list of elements varies, depending on who’s writing it. I’ve seen lists of three, four, five, seven, or ten elements, or do’s and don’ts, or what-have-you. I like the number five, so for this article I’m going to stick with five things your flash fiction story should include.

1. A plot. To be clear, a flash fiction piece is a complete story. Just like a longer piece of fiction, your flash piece needs a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I saw one website that recommended writing an outline for each flash story. I think that’s going a little overboard; your outline could end up longer than the story. But if your story doesn’t have an ending – if, say, you find you’ve written a scene that could be part of a longer story, or even part of a novel – then it’s not technically flash fiction.

2.  Characters. You don’t have a lot of space to describe your characters, obviously, but readers should still be able to tell them apart. Use telling details that you can describe in a few words. Keep your character count low, and stick with one point-of-view.

3. A hook. A flash story should start with a compelling scene and keep going. Just as in any other type of story, you need to include some kind of conflict – an internal or external (or both) challenge that your characters have to meet.

4. A slam-bang finish. Remember what I said about flash fiction needing an ending? A lot of successful flash pieces employ a twist at the end. Think of structuring your story as you would a joke; although your ending doesn’t need to be funny, it ought to be something that the reader didn’t see coming.

5. Edit your work before you hit submit. This is the place to hone your self-editing skills, guys. Cut all of your little crutch words: just, actually, that, and so on. You know the ones I mean. Then read the thing aloud – it will only take you a minute or two – and make sure you didn’t forget a word.

That’s it. Oh, and have fun! See you Saturday.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

16 thoughts on “Five Flash Fiction Elements”

  1. …I had no idea there were rules. Figured I’d just throw in whatever came to mind. Interesting.

    1. Same here (other than the rules that accompany the weekly contest). I recently entered just for the fun of it. Silly me. I won’t be doing that again.

    2. Kathy, I knew that flash fiction pieces had to have an ending. What surprised me was that people teach actual courses in flash fiction writing. That seems kind of crazy to me. 😀

  2. I must say, the idea of creating a complete story in 250 words is a bit scary to me. But, this is definitely a confidence-boosting primer.

  3. The short form is not my forte, but it can be a lot of fun, and it is great for focusing the mind on what’s truly important. Think Haiku for prose. 🙂

  4. Great info, so far I have only tried this once last year. I may have to try my hand again with some more submissions.

  5. Flash fiction is a good exercise to help you keep your prose tight, and like any story, basically, it needs to have a beginning, middle and end. Also, because it’s so short, I think it really needs to be punchy. There’s nothing worse than a 250 word waffle that takes you nowhere.

    By the way, I’m glad the guidelines on the IU Flash Fiction are now tighter. It used to be that a participant could write 250 words of any old drivel and have a small army of supporters standing by to vote it a winner and onto the IU anthology.

      1. Thanks, TD. 🙂 I think the intent of the contest has always been to use the prompts as a springboard to get people writing. But I have to say that I’m pleased that winners now have to stick to the prompt and tell a whole story.

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