The Freedom That Comes With Constriction: Flash Fiction

My husband also writes. Recently, he submitted a piece to a contest held by the Indiana Review. The piece he submitted is comprised of only about 500 words, yet it has suspense, intrigue, an emotional arc, metaphors, a satisfying resolution. Influenced by writers such as Donald Barthelme (check out The School for a great example of Barthelme’s style), my husband has really gotten into flash fiction. In this genre, also known as micro-fiction, stories are no longer than 1,000 words, and often far less.

Writing in this genre can be quite liberating, and here are a few reasons why.

  1. Plotlines are often simple. Not much can happen in stories this short. Often they are a scene, a moment. Writers need not worry as much about appropriate passage of time and tying parts together.
  2. All of the loose ends have to be tied up quickly. So, there is less of a chance that a thread will be left undone, or that the writer will write him or herself into a corner that’s hard to get out of.
  3. There are often fewer characters. In this genre, only a few characters will take a lead role, and often just one. Writers can focus on developing just these characters fully.

Though at first glance it may seem as if writers of flash fiction eschew process because the writing happens so quickly, writing in this genre can actually be wonderful writing process practice. Here’s how:

  • Planning – To write an entire story with an arc, character development, and resolution within a limited word count, the story must be carefully planned. Too complex a plot or too many characters, and the story will get too long very quickly. Encourage your writers to plan with clarity and brevity in mind. You might find that the greater precision required when planning flash fiction helps them when they are planning longer stories.
  • Drafting – As with most drafting, it’s important that writers have some sense of freedom during this stage. Encourage your writers to draft beyond the word count, and to whittle down their writing later. Freedom in drafting and having plenty of fodder to revise will help them to get at what they really, really want to say.
  • Revision – As always, this is the heart of the writing process. One of my favorite quotes about writing (and life) is by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Having a strict word limit forces writers to think about what really, really is important in a piece, even at the word level, and to cut all the rest. It’s remarkable how much seems superfluous when one is only allowed 300 words to tell a story.  

When getting ready to teach flash fiction, first, I recommend considering an appropriate word length for your students and insisting that they stick to it. This word length will of course depend on the how much students typically write on their own. Choose a word length that’s a bit shorter than the stories your students typically write. The goal is that they feel a bit constricted, which will help them to plan wisely, stay on the path, and revise for clarity by cutting out parts that aren’t strictly needed.

Second, as is always key when you are getting ready to teach a particular genre, try this writing yourself. Aim of course for the word count you’ve given your students, and pay particular attention to times you feel stuck. Make note of how you get yourself unstuck, because those strategies will become valuable teaching points you can give your students. Be to write at least one piece you are comfortable sharing with your students so that they have a model.

For further help with teaching points, David Gaffney is the author of Sawn-Off Tales (2006) and More Sawn-Off Tales (2013), collections of stories that are no more than 150 words each. Click here to read a few of his tips for the genre, tips such as “start in the middle” and “don’t use too many characters.” His tips would certainly help many student writers as well as adult writers.

Finally, I recommend trying out flash fiction not as an entire weeks-long unit, but as a one-off, fast, one or two-day writing experience that you insert here and there into writing workshop time. It’s perfectly fine for writers to sometimes create pieces that they don’t live with for long, but that they pour themselves into for a day or two and then set free. You might insert flash fiction days in between units, or even mid-unit when it seems your students could use a break and a recharge. Or just when you think a little flash fiction might be fun.

Happy flash fiction writing, and please share how it goes!