How to write flash fiction
Short fiction expert John Dufresne's Flashpoints! Top Tips for Writing Very Short Stories
1. Pay Attention.
The first act of writing is paying attention, making yourself susceptible to the provocative world. Any object – this teacup full of thumbtacks, let’s say – or any person – that orangey fellow with the peculiar hairweave over by the eggplants – can provoke a story. Keep a notebook with you to remind you that you’re a writer and you’re looking for material. Inspiration, like honest emotion, can’t be faked, but it can be summoned. It can be cultivated. That’s why you keep a notebook with you – to write when you only have a minute. Notetaking is a creative act. You make a note about a woman’s blouse. Then you wonder where she lives, and you see her apartment, and you can tell she lives alone but has a cat, and the cat’s a marbled tabby named Cochise. Then you wonder what her job is. And so it goes. Put down a word. Any word. And then another. Inspiration appears to the attentive and playful mind.
Make your flash fictions algebraic word problems or culinary recipes or auto-corrected text messages from your estranged father or e-mail spam from Nigerian bankers or advertisements for a new kind of hat that grows hair in just thirty days and for Dr. Campbell’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers. In short, anything at all. Once we pay attention, we notice that short forms for our borrowing are all around us: want ads, the family Christmas letters, encyclopedia entries, job applications, résumés, blog posts, billboards, tweets, footnotes, assembly instructions, questionnaires, field notes, interviews, news reports, Facebook posts, travelogues, menus, car manuals, course syllabi, letters of complaint, book blurbs, letters of recommendation, weather reports, business cards, book reviews, movie reviews, taxonomies, horoscopes, movie pitches, police blotters, comic strips, confessions (forensic and liturgical), Post-it notes, wedding announcements, party invitations, FAQs, chatrooms, texts, list posts, rejection letters, magazine subscription cards, warning labels, lost dog posters, and so on. Forms, not formulas.
Writing short-short stories is the art of omission. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in. This is fiction approaching haiku, the art of few words and many suggestions. Like a haiku, these short-short stories start us thinking. The reader then goes on after the piece is finished, goes on in the emotional direction suggested by the story. Think of the very short story as the Zen of fiction – it doesn’t explain; it only indicates. It carries the collaboration between author and reader to another level. The story is the call that awaits its response.
Plot: In very short stories, the plot may be elliptical, that is, missing, off the page, implied rather than expressed. But you need to know that plot yourself so you can leave it out while letting it cast its light on the narrative. Remember, every story is about trouble.
Setting: because nothing happens nowhere, and you can’t move the world if you have no place to set your lever.
Vivid character(s), at least one of whom we can care about: This would seem to go without saying. Character is the heart of fiction. All stories are about people. People in trouble.
Theme: This is what about what the story’s about. It’s the abstraction made flesh. The idea treated by action or by discourse or by both. Not loneliness, in other words, but what you have to say about that loneliness. Theme is where the writing meets the world.
Images: Stories, like dreams, exist in images. Not ideas. They are sensual. Like dreams, fiction communicates in visual images because, for most of us, vision is our primary vehicle for understanding the world. Why images? To involve the reader in the story, to engage the reader’s and your own narrative imaginations. Images are more vivid and more emotionally powerful than abstractions.
Words: Words are all we have. Every character we animate, every room we construct, every town we build, all of it we do with words. With words we cast our spells. In a letter to Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford addressed language: “We used to say that a passage of good style began with a fresh, usual word, and continued with fresh, usual words to the end: there was nothing more to it.” The fresh, usual word.
Stories aren’t written but rewritten, and you have to have something to revise – a complete first draft. The purpose of this draft is not to get it right but to get it written. To err is human, to revise divine. To expect too much from the first draft is to misunderstand the writing process. A good first draft is a failed first draft. If at first you succeed, try, try again. Remember that you can surrender to failure and stop trying (another failure) or you can use the failure to make you brave. While very short stories may be quickly read, they are not often quickly written. It takes time to be brief. Draft by draft the story improves.
Writing is a job and you don’t get paid if you don’t go to work. It may be more important and more valuable to write on those days when, for whatever reasons, the writing is not going smoothly than it is to write on those semioccasional days when you’re firing on all creative cylinders. Anyone can write on a good day. Writers do it every day. On the discouraging and frustrating days you need to write and push back against every distraction and every person calling you away from the writing desk. And you don’t need discipline to do this; you need love or passion. You’re not writing because you have to; you’re writing because you want to. Writing is a love of labor as much as a labor of love. Discipline is too much like punishment and rigor and other unpleasantries we’d like to avoid. But we always find time to do the things we love.
Flash! The Art of Writing the Very Short Story by John Dufresne is published by W.W. Norton & Company