The Structure of Flash Fiction (Part 1)

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March 30, 2023

Flash fiction is a very short story. How short depends on who is defining it. Some say less than 1500 words, some say 1000. Some flash fiction stories can be just a few words. For novel writers, thinking about your story this way can also help you focus on what matters.

Though these articles are about structure, it’s important to note that no two flash stories are alike. The more flash you read, the more you’ll realize how a whole world can be contained in a tiny story, even when they don't follow what we normally consider a story arc. 

That said, we can use the idea of a story arc as a starting point to craft a compelling story. This structure-based approach to writing flash works especially well if you’re new to flash. Once you’ve written several flash pieces, the arc will come naturally. And once you’ve mastered the arc, you’ll be able to experiment with different kinds of flash structures. Like anything else, once you’ve learned the rules, you can break them.

For this series, I’ll be using a flash piece of 274 words as an example.

Section 1:

The first 2-3 sentences set the place and introduce the characters. Since you have limited space, consider using imagery to bring your reader into the story.

Toby’s late afternoon beard rubs roughly across my cheek as he brushes past it for a perfunctory air kiss. He’s drinking again, I surmise, based on the smudges under his eyes and the smell on his breath. The sun shimmers on the water, catching my eye so I miss the waiter’s approach.

We’ve established the story in a few sentences—A contemporary story about two people dealing with one’s drinking problem.

Section 2:

In your next 2-3 sentences, introduce the conflict if you haven’t already and give your main character one attempt at resolving it. In our case, we’re introducing that the POV character is bothered by Toby drinking. We already established that in the opening lines, but we’re solidifying it in the next few.

Toby orders a gin and tonic, but I speak over him. “Cranberry juice for me,” I say, pointing a finger at the menu as if to lend weight to my words. “And coffee for him.”

Now we know Toby is probably an alcoholic, and our main character is trying to prevent him from drinking. We get the idea there's a history between the characters so we’re getting a sense of character development here, too. Our character’s obstacle—what she is trying to do is to stop Toby from drinking.

The attempt to resolve the conflict is revealed when the main character orders coffee instead of alcohol.

Because it’s flash, there are no long character descriptions and only hints to the characters’ relationship. Let the reader do some work. Later in the story, we give another detail to further explain their relationship, but we don’t ever state it outright. Why? Because it isn’t important. The important part of this story is the conflict and we’ve given that the attention it deserves.

Since we have limited space, use this section to show the character trying to resolve the conflict, even if that attempt is something small (like ordering coffee).

Continue your flash fiction in The Structure of Flash Fiction (Part 2).

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