Want to write really flash stories? Sharpen your skills with these tips and tricks for writing flash fiction.


Sometimes called microfiction or short-short fiction, flash fiction has been around since Aesop wrote his fables around 600 BC.

Here is one of my favourites:

‘A vixen sneered at a lioness because she never bore more than one cub. “Only one,” she replied, “but a lion.”‘

That line could make a good comeback for a one-book author.

Flash fiction has become so popular that it is now a distinct literary form. Many competitions include prizes and anthology publications for short-short stories anywhere from six words to 1,000. For example, the online quarterly contest Flash 500 is dedicated solely to 500-word stories. Even the prestigious Bridport Prize includes a flash category – a 250-word story draws a first prize of £1,000!

Small is beautiful …

Apart from winning competitions, there are other benefits to writing flash fiction: finding one word to replace four stretches your vocabulary; keeping it tight cultivates precision; a small, focused target can help overcome writers’ block; and engineering the twist develops a devious mind for plotting.

… And perfectly formed

The challenge is that flash fiction has to be a complete story, with a catchy hook, distinctive characters, significant conflict and a satisfying conclusion. Often, but not always, the story has a twist in the tail – preferably in the last couple of words – that takes the reader by surprise. But you must not cheat; clues to the denouement must be woven so subtly through the story that the judges – who have seen everything and are as sharp as an editor’s pencil – will enjoy being fooled as well.

Another problem is keeping within the word count – making each word robust enough to carry a maximum of expression, and not being as extravagant with adjectives as I have in the previous paragraph, for example. Imagine you’re paying a premium per word: seek the best value.

The lower the word count, the greater the challenge. Flash fiction is not an easy option or just the baby brother of the short story. As with poetry, the need for precise word selection, often to convey multiple layers of meaning, means you can make a point more pithily and memorably in 500 words than in 5,000. To quote Anton Chekhov, ‘Brevity is the sister of talent.’

Read some of the winning stories on flash competition websites, and you will see just how much talent their writers possess.

So how do they do it?

Cut to the chase

If you analyse some of those stories, you will see that the authors use the minimum of words to show action and reaction, choosing words strong enough to hint at what they don’t say.

I’m stepping off the kerb here, but I’ll give an example:

Jason was limping as he slowly approached us. He was on his feet again after an injury on the rugby field, but he wouldn’t play again – it had left him feeling rather depressed. (33 words)

If we cut unnecessary words – like adverbs, obvious observations and phrases that ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ – we can reduce the words to less than a third and leave a bit to the reader’s imagination.

Jason limped towards us – his rugby days were over. (9 words)

But ‘limped’ is an unsubtle choice; it suggests flaccidity and an absence of tension, leading nowhere. We could help the reader imagine Jason’s feelings by using a less expected and stronger verb that involves the imposition of restraint and so implies a will thwarted.

Jason hobbled towards us – his rugby days were over.

This is a simple illustration; within a story of vivid characters and coiled-spring tension, the power of what is not said can be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s the blanks that kill.

Use rich text

After being this ruthless with a couple of stories, you realise how adjectives and adverbs can gobble up the word count to no purpose. Mark Twain was dead against them. His advice was, ‘When you catch an adjective, kill it!’. Sometimes an adjective is necessary for precision, but most adverbs can be cut by using stronger verbs. Verbs work hard – holding down two jobs at once if recruited wisely.

Successful flash writers tend to portray characters through their actions, finding visual, active verbs that keep the story moving to maintain pace; they use dialogue the same way. Another shortcut is the use of metaphors and similes in place of space-eating descriptions.

It is within these layers of rich text and multiple meanings that writers conceal the clues to their final twist, sending the reader back to the beginning to see how they did it.

In a tight space words must play as a team; one idler mid-field can upset the whole game strategy. That’s what sustains the flow and tempo of winning stories; pace and tension are compelling. You have only minutes: don’t give the judge cause to blink, let alone lift her gaze from the page. Cold coffee is not your problem.

Ignite a flash of inspiration

All this brutality is left-brain activity – analysing, evaluating, searching – that’s why the experts recommend writing freely to let ideas flow uninhibited, then editing as a separate exercise. Hemingway did it standing up.

‘Writers’ block’ is not in my vocabulary; instead I have the three ‘Ds’: displacement, deviance and dalliance. I’m cunning with all three. But if my current creation is festering unresolved in a drawer, or mocking me from the screen, focusing on one idea or character and setting a target of just 100 words will stir my ‘write’ brain into action.

I take an idea from around my desk – a picture, a book cover, a letter – or whatever I see out of the window. Distracted by a violent storm recently, I set to describing it in 25 words. It became the opening paragraph to a new story that was later short-listed in a competition.

Good-to-go for non-fiction too

Flash techniques apply equally to non-fiction writing. My first experience of stripping down to the kernel was after returning from years of aid work overseas. Broke and desperate, I became a ‘gobbeter’ for a university website – reducing paunchy research reports to their 500-word essence. The pay was so poor I had to hack two a day to pay the bills. Yes, it is possible – whiz through contents, index, headings, conclusions, look for the words ‘policy recommendations’ and peek at the style.

Now I’m hooked on flash fiction, not just to gob-smack judges with my literary nibbles, but because the word play, precision and masochistic editing improve my writing. Best of all – I love it.

Here are some flash competition websites with links to winning stories:

About the Author

Trish Nicholson

Trish Nicholson started writing 30 years ago as a columnist and feature writer. More recently, she has authored travelogues on the Philippines and Bhutan, and the cautionary tale: From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters.

She is the author of several non-fiction books, including Writing Your Nonfiction Book, and a travel memoir of Papua New Guinea. See her other books on Amazon here.

Trish is passionate about writing short stories, some of which have won international competitions and been published in anthologies. Trish lives in the ‘winterless’ far north of New Zealand and has a tree house in her garden.

Read her blog: www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com

Photo Credits: Flickr.com_Melodramambabs; Flickr.com_Epicantus