The Structure of Flash Fiction (Part 2)

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April 17, 2023

This post is part two in a series.

In The Structure of Flash Fiction (part 1), we discussed how you can use flash fiction to help hone your story and covered the first part of flash fiction structure.

Here's what comes next:

Section 3:

The middle part of the story contains a few (maybe 4-6) sentences that show the attempted conflict resolution has failed.

Toby’s glare settles on me as the waiter walks away. His bloodshot eyes water and for a moment, I wonder if he’s about to cry. He glances at the next table where they’re gulping Bloody Marys as if they’re trying to drown in them. Young women in bikinis rush the water—their screams and giggles float on the air toward us. Toby pops a cashew into his mouth and forces a smile. “You don’t know what it’s like. You. Your mom. That priest—you don’t know.”

If the earlier action was simply an attempt to keep Toby from drinking in this moment, we can say the resolution attempt was successful. But the real conflict isn’t overcome by a simple action such as ordering coffee. Toby is still distracted by other people drinking alcohol. His words make it clear he isn’t connecting with the main character. He tells the main character she doesn’t know what it’s like to be him. He may not physically have a drink in front of him, but he isn’t on board with her attempt to resolve their conflict.

You can also use this section to do some more world building. Here, we added the young women in bikinis to suggest they're at a restaurant near the beach.

Section 4: Almost, but not quite the end

In the next 3-5 sentences, you must decide whether your conflict going to be resolved. You can have your main character make a last-ditch effort at doing the thing, whatever the thing is, and they can succeed or fail. In the case of Toby’s Toast, we’re going to fail.

I don’t know. I can’t even guess. My bare shoulders broil in the sun and I gratefully reach for the juice when the waiter returns, gulping it like I’m trying to drown. I can’t save Toby. My mother exhausted herself against his addiction when they were married and her endless crying at the kitchen table proved that love alone can’t save a person who doesn’t want to be saved.

Like I’m trying to drown—there’s the shift. The main character realizes she can’t save Toby and reflects on how her mother also failed to save him. We’ve also dropped a little truth bomb in this section. “Love alone can’t save a person who doesn’t want to be saved.” You don’t necessarily have to have a truth bomb in your story, but it’s always great when you can point to one sentence and say, “Yep. This is my theme.”

Section 5: Closure

In the last 2-4 sentences, you’ll wrap up the story. You can link back to the obstacle, end with a definitive action, or give the reader a happily ever after. You don’t have to truly end the story—the beauty of flash fiction is the story can be continued in the reader’s mind. But consider doing something to give them a sense of finality.

A burst of laughter erupts from the next table. The drinkers lift their glasses and toast each other through a drunken haze. Toby tips his coffee to them or maybe to me.

I could have ended the story with section four. But that wasn't satisfying. We need closure. We may not have resolved the issue, but we established that the moment has passed. If we ended with the previous paragraph, we'd have left Toby hanging. We’ve already let the reader know the main character is done trying and with the toast, we’re letting them know that Toby is done, too.

Now that you have the formula, you can apply it to any characters in any setting. Try it yourself and let us know in our social media channels how it worked.

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