Maybe you’re struggling to fill out a novel because you just don’t feel like you have enough plot for an entire book or multiple pages. Or maybe you’re a more verbose writer with no problem cranking out 100,000, words and now you’re looking for a challenge—something to teach you how to cut down all the excess fat and produce a story that keeps only the relevant details at the forefront.
Whatever side you lie on, you might want to try your hand at flash fiction. This type of very short story, sometimes called microfiction, creates the largest impact possible with the fewest words possible. These self-contained stories require only a few minutes to read, but leave a lasting impact.
Here’s what you need to know about how to write flash fiction, including some flash fiction examples.
What is flash fiction?
Flash fiction, sometimes called microfiction or sudden fiction, is a type of writing that tells a story in at most 1,500 words. They can also be much shorter. Flash fiction is shorter than a short story, which can be as long as 10,000 words, and it can be of any genre.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that flash fiction is any less impactful than any other form of fiction writing, just because it’s is exceptionally short. Flash fiction follows rules and contains much of the same literary devices and techniques that you’ll find in longer works, and many writers labor over their flash fiction just as they would a longer piece.
Flash fiction typically only focuses on one scene, but that scene will still include a plot arc. What it might not include, though, is an internal character arc or a multitude of secondary or tertiary characters. Flash fiction is primarily plot and conflict-focused.
Types of flash fiction stories
While flash fiction can refer to any story under 1,500 words, there are several sub-types of flash fiction of different lengths. You might find that some forms are more suited to your tastes and writing style than others.
The six-word story
The six-word story is just that: a story told in just six words, and often a single sentence. Ernest Hemingway wrote one of the most famous six-word stories, which you’ll see in our examples further down.
Arguably, this flash fiction story is the hardest type of flash fiction to write, because it’s the shortest. Every one of those six words in the sentence must pull its weight. None can be taken for granted when you have such a short word count.
You can find some examples of six-word stories from a slew of bestselling authors here.
Twitterature, a play on “Twitter” and “literature,” has come about thanks to the robust writing community to be found on X (previously known as Twitter). In this type of flash fiction, writers don’t stick to a specific word count, but are instead restricted to using the old Twitter guidelines of 280 characters or less.
A minisaga, also sometimes called “dribble,” features a word count of just 50 words or less.
Drabbles, or micro stories, have a word count set at 100 words. While it might not seem like a lot, once you’ve tried writing a few six-word stories, you’ll find those 100 words absolutely generous and luxurious.
Sudden fiction gives you a bit more wiggle room to play around with, with a top word count of 750 words.
General flash fiction
If your story doesn’t fit into the above categories, it’s still flash fiction if it’s a self-contained story under 1,500 words.
How to write effective flash fiction
So how do you write effective flash fiction? Here are a few tips for creating the most impact possible with the fewest words possible.
Don’t be afraid to start “in medias res”
“In medias res” is a term frequently used to describe a story or novel that begins in the middle of the action. The term is literally Latin for “into middle things.”
With the limited space available in flash fiction, it’s often best to start the story right in the midst of what’s happening. It’s important to get to the point, so that you don’t waste any time building up to the true heart of your story.
Trust your readers
Sometimes, as writers, it’s easy to assume that you need to tell your readers absolutely everything. You need to spell out all the nitty-gritty details. After all, how else would you get a story, an entire world that’s all in your head, into their head?
However, we often don’t give our readers enough credit. They’re more than capable of filling in the blanks, so if you don’t absolutely need a detail, leave it out.
Learn to recognize filler words
While filler words can slide in a novel (so long as they’re not used in excess), that’s not the case in flash fiction. The good news? If you learn to recognize filler words in your flash fiction, that skill will carry over to your other writing, making it tighter overall.
Filler words often include things like passive voice verb phrases and unnecessary adverbs. Other popular fillers are extraneous words like “that,” “seemed,” and “wondered.” So, change your passive voice to active voice. Look at each adverb used and consider if you could omit it if you used a more descriptive verb. Strike every “that” that’s not necessary. Instead of something “seeming” a way, make it that way. Instead of a character saying that they’re wondering something, have them just wonder it (so, “I wondered if he loved me” turns into “Did he love me?”).
Some of these filler words are known as perception verbs. Perception verbs indicate that your character is perceiving something and they’re often unnecessary. “Wondered” is a perception verb, as is “saw,” “heard,” etc. You don’t need to tell us that your character saw or heard something; just have them do it. Don’t tell us “Jack looked out the window and saw Dave coming up the drive.” Say, “Jack looked out the window. Dave was coming up the drive.”
While adjectives don’t often get the same hate as adverbs, they can still often be omitted in flash fiction to tighten your prose as much as possible. This is not the place for adjective-filled purple prose. So, examine those adjectives and replace your adjective-noun pairing with a lone, more specific noun where possible. For example, an “old, beaten-down car” becomes a “beater.” An “old, ugly, witchy woman” becomes a “crone.”
Removed all your filler words, but still finding that your story is too long to be considered flash fiction? Read through your story and consider how each sentence serves the story. If it doesn’t and if the story will have the exact same effect without that sentence, remove it.
Show, don’t tell
It’s a mantra beaten into writers’ heads from the cradle, and it’s one of those rules that, once you get used to it, you can break on occasion. However, in most flash fiction stories, it really is best to show, not tell. Telling takes up extra, valuable words.
What does this mean?
Well, don’t tell us your character felt hungry; make their stomach growl. Don’t tell us that the bookshelves were filled with books that hadn’t been touched in years; just put a layer of dust on everything.
Again, assume your readers are smart. They’ll be able to figure it out.
Use as few characters as possible
We’re not just talking letters in the alphabet. Flash fiction doesn’t leave room for a large cast of characters. In general, you’ll find that most pieces of flash fiction focus on maybe one or two characters, or three max. This allows you room to focus on plot and conflict, without needing to explain who everyone is and their relationships.
Know your characters and world
Just because you shouldn’t include a plethora of background information about your characters, setting, internal character arcs, and so forth in your flash fiction stories, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still know this information.
Before you start writing (or during the editing process), consider everything you might need to know about your characters. While you’re only showing readers a snippet of those characters’ lives, it’s important for you as the author to understand what brought your characters to that place and scene, so you can make the best writing decisions possible.
Keep the necessary plot elements
Any basic story with a plot includes a few key elements, and these are elements that you should have in your flash fiction as well.
In order to create a narrative and move the story forward in so few words, you need a character who wants or needs something, and consequences for them not getting what they want. This need and the consequences, or stakes, will drive your story’s action and plot.
Play around with formatting
Formatting can be your friend when it comes to flash fiction stories. It can say something without using any words at all. For example, rather than saying someone’s speech was cut off or drifted off, use an em dash for the former or an ellipsis for the latter.
Beyond punctuation choices, also consider how you could use more unusual formatting choices to your benefit. In flash fiction, you don’t have to stick to typical paragraphs on a blank page. You’ll find flash fiction pieces that are written in the form of emails, grocery lists, recipes, lesson plans, syllabi, diary entries, letters—any kind of writing is an option.
End with a bang
Something that nearly all flash fiction stories have in common, no matter the length or format? They end with a bang.
It’s characteristic for flash fiction to have some sort of dramatic plot twist at the end, or some kind of gut punch—a big reveal that perhaps the reader could sense, but not specifically guess ahead of time.
However you end your flash fiction, though, whether it’s six words or a thousand, make sure that, when it ends, it feels like it ends. A well-written piece of flash fiction feels like a complete story.
Examples of effective flash fiction stories
Here’s how a few masterful short fiction writers put all of the above into action in some of their best flash fiction stories.
Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story
One of the most popular examples of the six-word story is Ernest Hemingway’s untitled story about a pair of baby shoes. It’s highly likely that you’ve seen it before, but maybe might not have known that it was attributed to Hemingway or that it’s considered a great flash fiction example.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
This emotionally evocative story doesn’t tell us everything, but it tells us enough in just six words. The intelligent reader can infer that there was a baby, or at least the hope of a baby, in this story. However, there was a tragedy; maybe the baby died, maybe the baby was never born in the first place. Now, we have these shoes that were never worn and, what’s more, now they’re for sale, because all hope is lost.
“Happy little accidents” by Meg Orpwood
In this flash fiction piece, which clocks in at just under 1,000 words, the omniscient narrator uses an art auction as a way to explore humanity and social commentary. It encourages the reader to think and raises thought-provoking questions for discussion.
“Professor Malloy’s First Lesson Back Teaching University English 101 After an Extended Maternity Leave” by Leila Murton Poole
Okay, first off, yes, it is a seemingly long title for a very short work of great flash fiction. That aside, this award-winning piece of microfiction, which tells a story in just 250 words, is an excellent example of how one can play around with formatting to achieve a greater impact.
Murton Poole uses an email and course lesson plan for university students to tell a traumatic story not too different from Hemingway’s above. At the same time, the story’s lesson plan’s focus on verb tenses ties in nicely with the story’s theme of the past, present, and future, as well as grief.
“A Recipe for You in the New World” by Nicholas Marconi
Similarly, this 100-word piece of microfiction uses unusual formatting to create a big impact. In this case, the format is that of a recipe. As you read the piece, you can easily see how each word has been carefully chosen to tie into the author’s chosen themes of immigration and racial tension.
“Where are You?” by Joyce Carol Oates
This flash fiction originally published in The New Yorker uses just 500 words. The story describes two characters, an elderly husband and wife. Prolific author Joyce Carol Oates uses repetition and flowing, unbroken text in one paragraph to create an anxious mood, increasing the tension and drama in the story, building it over time until we reach the dramatic conclusion.
“Sticks” by George Saunders
In this short short story, Saunders shows how to effectively cover a lot of ground in a piece of flash fiction.
Whereas flash fiction most often focuses on one scene, one moment in time, this piece covers decades of a family’s life. However, it does this effectively by narrowing in on one singular aspect of the family life, providing just enough details about the family members to ensure the story follows its arc without getting bogged down in unnecessary details.
“The Hornbeam’s lament” by Helen Williams
This award-winning short story chooses a unique narrative perspective with which to follow a family through time. It has a beginning, middle, end, conflict, resolution, and fascinating human relationships to explore. This is a great example of how a story can be given new dimension through the natural world.
“Baby Dolls” by Becky Robison
In this 175-word story, Robison uses careful word choices to create double meanings that are only revealed at the end of the story, prompting the reader to go back to the very start and read through again, uncovering the layers beneath the story’s simple exterior. Some of the most effective flash fiction stories are best appreciated through reading them over and over again.
The power of flash fiction stories
Don’t underestimate flash fiction. While it might seem unassuming and simple, given its short word count, it takes skill and a fair amount of work to write flash fiction that’s effective. However, if you can master this form of fiction as a writer, you’ll find that all your later writing is better for it, with tighter prose and more meaningful word choices.