Flashes of Brilliance
by S. Joan Popek

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What is "flash fiction?"

It's a literary power punch to the gut. Slam! Contact! Get out!

This shortest of the short forms is a flash of a story that, like a flash bulb, vividly illuminates one moment in time. It's generally defined as a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end that uses the elements of traditional short stories, often with a twist ending in 100 words or less.

"One hundred words? How can you get the elements of fiction in only 100 words or less?

Flash fiction captures the essence of a story. In a snapshot, the subject is usually in front. The background takes a seat behind your conscious mind. You know it's there, but you are focused on the subject.

Example: Picture a child catching a bright, red ball. what do you see? Action. What's the background? I didn't tell you, but you probably saw a flash of one. Your own experiences detailed the sentence for you. Maybe you saw the child outside since that's where balls are usually thrown. Maybe you saw a young child because the ball is bright red. Older children play with basketballs, footballs or baseballs--usually none of these are red. Did you see sunshine? Was that why the ball was bright? Did you see grass and trees? Or did you see city streets and buildings? That would depend on your perception of outside and ball playing, wouldn't it?

Make your words Work

Use strong, active verbs and few if any linking verbs and adjectives. There is no time in flash fiction for a lot of description or detail or for much characterization. The writer must depend upon the readers' experiences to fill in the gaps. Dialogue-driven stories are great for quick action, character and conflict development.

Writing flash fiction is an excellent exercise to tighten your writing--to pack as much action in as few words as possible. You can use flash fiction as the core idea to develop longer pieces--even novels. It helps identify the four elements of fiction: Setting, Character, Conflict and Resolution.

Most writing instructors will tell you not to use one-word sentences, but in flash fiction, they can work for you. They get attention, convey meaning with their punctuation and say whole paragraphs in just one word. They are great hooks.


"Listen!" (Sets the scene for suspense.) What did the speaker hear? Was it Frightening? Shocking? Exciting?

Active verbs are best, but nouns work too with the right punctuation. Say the following aloud to yourself, and notice the punctuation:

Quiet. (pause)
Quiet? (pause)
Quiet! (pause)

Did you hear the implications?

Quiet. (A noun implying silence. This is Setting.)
Quiet? (Why do you want me to be quiet? This is Conflict and a hint of character)
Quiet! (An order to shut up. This is Resolution)

Here is an example of a six word story using only one word sentences.

What's In A Word?

Flashing's Four Elements

Setting is where the action takes place. This can be told in a sentence: She watched him go to bed. Or as in Harvey Stanbrough's "At Confession" in the sidebar, left to the reader to assume that it must be taking place in a confessional.

Usually, there is not room for more than two characters--three at most. But realize "characters" don't always have to be human. In fact, they don't even have to be animate. Can you create a story about a pebble and a blade of grass trying to inhabit the same spot?

Conflict is just a difference of opinion--tension to keep the reader reading. It can be verbal, physical or mental. It doesn't always have to be villain/hero.

Resolution is the conclusion of the conflict. "Small" works best in flash fiction; don't go for miraculous resolution, in which the protagonist is saved by some miracle not of his/her making.

Most writers use surprise endings, partly because flash fiction lends itself to such, but mostly because it makes it more fun both to read and to write. But they are not necessary. Even with a twist, don't surprise your readers too much. Make them think, "Ah--of course!" Don't make them think, "Boy, am I stupid!"

Flashing or faking?

It can be difficult sometimes to know if you're actually writing flash fiction or merely noodling with a slice-of-life vignette or journal entry. In the submissions sent to my magazines, I often see stories submitted as flash fiction when in actuality they are rambling essays or poems with no conflict or resolution. (And remember, by it's nature, flash fiction can not ramble.)

Flash fiction is not an idea for a story. An Idea is: what if an ant decides he wants to be ruler of the world. The story is built upon the idea. What he does to accomplish or fail at achieving his goal is the story. Flash fiction is not a slice-of-life vignette. This form is typically defined as a short graceful literary sketch. Flash fiction is a complete story, not a sketch.

The major difference between the forms is change. Change must occur in either the protagonist, the antagonist or the reader's mind for your story to be flash fiction. Take a look at my story below for an example of change:

Dragon Tales
"Why're you here?" the dragon bellowed. "Where's my virgin?"
"No virgins."
"No virgins?"
"Not one. None to be had. They've all been had." She winked seductively.
"Not funny! Every six months, I get a virgin. That's the deal. I never re-ally liked virgin. Too bland. Humans decided that dragons eat virgins." He patted his stomach. "I've a sensitive stomach, so I agreed."
"I brought pigs."
"No pigs?"
She paled.
He gobbled her up, then burped smoke. "I do like a spicy wench, but they sure don't like me. Now where did I put that antacid?"

The story's success depends on the reader's acquaintance with fairy tales to fill in what's implied. The setting is near a cave because that's where dragons live in fairy tales. It assumes that the reader expects dragons to eat virgins, but perhaps has never questioned why. The conflict is in the dragon's decision to eat a non-virgin even knowing it will give him heart- burn. Resolution? The girl foolish enough to approach the dragon in the first place gets eaten. The ending provides the twist because usually the heroine outwits the dragon. The change in this case occurs in the reader's mind as his or her perception of fairy tales changes.

This story is also an example of making stereotypical plots work for u. The plot remains true to the stereotype until its deviation at the end.

Fast tips for flash stories

According to Harvey Stanbrough's, Write Tight: Writing and Marketing Flash Fiction 1998, "If you're aiming for a particular word length, say 55 words, it sometimes helps to write on a pad on which the lines are numbered. Write down the page, one word per line, then begin at the top again, This is a good way both to monitor your word count and replace individual words with others."

Write as fast as you can. Write as fast as you can. Don't worry about gram- mar-yet. Fill about half a page, count the words, fix the grammar, then read it aloud to yourself. Does it have setting, implied or otherwise? Conflict? Resolution? Does it affect a change?

Edit yourself-ruthlessly. Write your J story, then go back and erase all phrases, clauses and coordinating conjunctions that are not absolutely vital to the story. Delete any unnecessary adjectives. You'll be left with tight, active sentences.

Let dialogue do it. Write an all-dialogue story using as few tags as possible. Let the dialogue describe the characters and create conflict:

"Take that cigar out of your fat mouth!"
"Make me, you skinny runt."

This sets up conflict and puts a mental image in the reader's mind.

Stories to avoid. Although the form is new, there are some clichés already. Don't write about a writer writing and no "it was just a dream" pieces. These are overused and abused in many types of fiction, especially in flash fiction. And when your story is over, just stop. Like this.

Quick Exercises:

Use these ideas to get your creative effervesce bubbling, then elaborate. Think of some your own. Get busy. After all, you still have that best selling novel to write, don't you? Remember, keep them under 100 words.

  1. Write a 55-100 word story about the child with the ball.
  2. Try using the six word story in the article as a starting place to build a longer story up to 100 words.
  3. Write about a conflict between a mother/father and a teenaged daughter/son.
  4. Write about a conflict between two business men/business women.
  5. Write about the ant who wants to rule the world.
  6. Write about the pebble and the blade of grass who want to occupy the same space.
  7. Write about a grumpy robot and a playful kitten.
  8. Write about a graveyard at midnight, at high noon, at dawn.
  9. Write about a picture on a museum wall and a man in love.
  10. Write about a murder/robbery/prison break/prisoner on death row.

SIDEBAR: Confessin' the Rules

Harvey Stanbrough provides a piece of flash fiction--and then explains why and how it works.

At Confession
by Harvey Stanbrough

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."
"How long since your last confession?"
"Two years."
"What's the trouble?"
"I have wished death on a man."
"You haven't acted on your wish?"
"Not yet."
"Who is the man?"
"He is cheating with my wife."
The priest paled. "I forgive you."
I shot him through the screen.

The story works primarily because it seems to begin before the reader starts reading and apparently goes on after the story ends. This effect is caused because the story "begins in the middle of the action" and because it is dialogue driven. Also, the reader wouldn't normally side with a murderer, but in this story we do, because the killing seems to us to be justified in a way by the priest's heinous actions. The other main reason the story works is because it contains a primary element of most good flash fiction--it ends with a twist, something that is at once completely unexpected but easily understandable.

According to Harvey Stanbrough's, Write Tight: Writing and Marketing Flash Fiction "If you're aiming for a particular word length, say 55 words, it sometimes helps to write on a pad on which the lines are numbered. Write down the page, one word per line, then begin at the top again, This is a good way both to monitor your word count and replace individual words with others."

Find Out More...

Flash What? A Quick Look at Flash Fiction, by Jason Gurley

Flashes On The Meridian: Dazzled by Flash Fiction, by Pamelyn Casto

Copyright © 2001 S. Joan Popek
First published in Fiction Writer, 1999
Reprinted in a different form in Writer's Digest Writer's Yearbook, 2000

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

S. Joan Popek is an age challenged grandmother tiptoeing through the Twilight Zone while she gazes longingly at Ganymede. A science fiction addict since childhood, she is an award winning author and has been published in a number of magazines including Writer's Digest and Fiction Writer. Until recently, she was an editor for Millennium Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine. In the past, she has also been an editor for The Roswell Literary Review and FYI. Her homepage is http://www.sjoanpopek.com.


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