The Very Short Story: Flash in a Microcosm

The Very Short Story in a Microcosm

Flash fiction is still a story, only it’s told in a microcosm.

The same rules apply, but you have less room and fewer words to achieve the same end goal.

The essential building blocks of any story are beats, scenes, sequences, acts, and story.

Once you understand these, you can build any size, shape, or type of story you like.

So how do we apply this technique to flash fiction?

Flash fiction is by its very definition short, concise, and without wasted words.

There’s no room for wandering descriptions, weather reports, or characters sitting on stumps staring off into space for 300 words. By understanding story structure, you can move immediately into the meat of the story instead of wasting time with these unessential word-wasters.

The structure of a flash fiction story.

Very often, flash fiction begins late and ends early.

What do I mean by that?

Well, imagine going to a movie theater. You arrive at the theater fifteen minutes early, watching the opening credits, snacking on your popcorn, getting all the backstory, watching the main character meet all his companions, see the villain start trouble, and finally, FINALLY, the main character confronts the villain. In flash fiction, you’d slide into your seat just as the hero opens his mouth to confront the villain. The setting, backstory, even the basic conflict between the two characters can be inferred from a thousand tiny clues

And instead of waiting around for the scene to resolve, the hero to almost die, be saved in the nick of time by his trusty sidekick, defeat evil once and for all, then ride off into the sunset, roll credits, and wait for the people in front of you to round up all their children, coats, and bags, the flash fiction writer would be out of there a split second after evil is defeated. Or perhaps even before the villain is defeated, when we have a good hunch that it’s going to end that way.

That’s what we call “in late, out early.”

Apply this to story structure.

You know where to start the story.

Immediately, begin working out the beats of your scene – powerful action/reaction exchanges between characters.

Start small. Go big.

Each beat should increase the struggle.

If you start with the nuclear annihilation of the planet, you’ve left yourself nowhere to go. If you start with an argument between two nuclear physicists, you have plenty of escalating beats before you reach nuclear annihilation.

As your story naturally forms into scenes, look at each scene:

Ask yourself about what you learned in the section on story structure.

Does this scene involve meaningful change?

If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.

If the answer is no, you’ve probably written a piece of backstory.

Copy/paste that section into a separate document if you can’t bring yourself to delete it. But do not leave it in your story.

There’s no room in flash for wasted words.

If you’re following this formula, events will unfold in your story. One of the biggest problems in flash fiction is authors who hit the thousand word mark with nothing happening. You’re already ahead of the game.

Rinse, wash, and repeat until you’ve told the entire story you’re trying to tell.

During the editing process, go back to your story and see if your scenes naturally build.

If they don’t, try moving them around so the tension rises incrementally.

Remember to use your capping scene at the end of the story.

Flash fiction isn’t long enough for sequences or acts, but you can definitely reach a capping scene.

Do you remember the final rule of story?

At the end of the story, the change in the character must be absolute and irreversible.

Don’t try to pull a switcheroo on your reader. They’ll be left feeling cheated. The hallmark of a good story is one that satisfies reader expectations. That doesn’t mean giving the reader what they want, but, giving the reader an ending that is justified according to the rules of the story you’ve told.

Now it’s time for you to try it. Head to the next section and try the writing challenge I’ve set for you.

Let me know your results in the forum!

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