Are you an author at heart? Do you read stories – tiny, short, long – and wonder how you would have written the story differently? Are there characters and settings that occupy your mind all the time? Do you constantly conjure scenarios and populate them with your fertile imagination?
If you answered with a resounding YES to any (or all) of these questions, then you have what it takes to write flash fiction. If you have been wondering how to write flash fiction, congratulations!
Here is a complete guide to write flash fiction, along with free-to-read examples. Enjoy reading!
- What is flash fiction?
As with any new genre of literature, it is neither easy nor productive to define flash fiction in strict terms. Loosely, it is important to understand that the length is just one of the factors that make flash fiction what it is. But, if you must know, here are the broad classifications of fiction.
- How long are flash fiction stories?
As long as the length of the story ranges from a few to around one thousand words, it can be called flash fiction. Shorter fiction fits the flash fiction genre more than longer stories, which get classified as per their lengths into short stories, novelettes, and novellas, culminating in novels.
Think of them in cricketing terms, if you will: full novels are Test matches, short form prose [the 3 categories listed above] is like One Day Internationals, and flash fiction stories are Twenty 20s!
- When did people begin to write flash fiction?
Right from the beginning of literature, flash fiction [i.e. stories which are not novel-length] have existed. They appear in India’s literary canon as the Panchatantra’s animal tales, as well as Buddhism’s Jataka collection. In the Western literary tradition, Aesop’s Fables spring to mind.
In recent centuries, famous authors whose prowess lay in the longer form of fiction, like Kafka, Chekhov, Lovecraft, Hemingway, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Mahfouz (to name a few) have dabbled in flash fiction. Publications such as Cosmopolitan and The New Yorker also publish flash fiction.
Such examples show that flash fiction is neither new nor esoteric. It is, in fact, quite prevalent.
Early examples of flash fiction
An interesting (but unfortunately untrue) anecdote about Ernest Hemingway ascribes this woeful, heart-breaking six-word story to the Nobel laureate: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Here are two examples of early flash fiction stories of varying lengths from various authors:
- Example 1 [The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)]
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. To-morrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still where a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme. Sofronie, Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”
“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.
“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”
Down rippled the brown cascade.
“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practiced hand.
“Give it to me quick,” said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain, simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation—as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value—the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the eighty-seven cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap he used in place of a chain.
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends—a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, long, carefully, and critically.
“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do—Oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”
At seven o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please, God, make him think I am still pretty.”
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold it because I couldn’t live through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again—you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas,’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice—what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet, even after the hardest mental labour.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”
Jim looked about the room curiously.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you—sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with a sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there is anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped for long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, Oh!”
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hand under the back of his head and smiled.
“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”
The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.
Reproduced from Project Gutenberg online ebook repository; November 2022
- Example 2 [The Talkative Tortoise, from the Jataka Tales]
Once upon a time Brahmadatta was king of Benares, and the Bodhisatta, being born to one of the king’s court, grew up, and became the king’s adviser in all things human and divine. But this king was very talkative; and when he talked there was no chance for any other to get in a word. And the Bodhisatta, wishing to put a stop to his much talking, kept watching for an opportunity.
Now there dwelt a tortoise in a certain pond in the region of Himalaya. Two young wild geese, searching for food, struck up an acquaintance with him; and by and by they grew close friends together.
One day these two said to him: “Friend Tortoise, we have a lovely home in Himalaya, on a plateau of Mount Cittakuta, in a cave of gold! Will you come with us?”
“Why,” said he, “how can I get there?”
“Oh, we will take you, if only you can keep your mouth shut, and say not a word to anybody.”
“Yes, I can do that,” says he. “Take me along!”
So they made the tortoise hold a stick between his teeth; and themselves taking hold so of the two ends, they sprang up into the air.
The village children saw this, and exclaimed: “There are two geese carrying a tortoise by a stick!”
(By this time the geese flying swiftly had arrived at the space above the palace of the king, at Benares.)
The Tortoise wanted to cry out: “Well, and if my friends do carry me, what is that to you, you caitiffs?” And he let go the stick from between his teeth, and falling into the open courtyard he split in two.
What an uproar there was! “A tortoise has fallen in the courtyard, and broken in two!” they cried.
The king, with the Bodhisatta, and all his court, came up to the place, and seeing the tortoise asked the Bodhisatta a question. “Wise Sir, what made this creature fall?”
“Now’s my time!” thought he. “For a long while I have been wishing to admonish the king, and I have gone about seeking my opportunity. No doubt the truth is this: The tortoise and the geese became friendly; the geese must have meant to carry him to Himalaya, and so made him hold a stick between his teeth, and then lifted him into the air; then he must have heard some remark, and wanted to reply; and not being able to keep his mouth shut he must have let himself go; and so he must have fallen from the sky and thus come by his death.”
So thought he; and addressed the king: “O king, they that have too much tongue, that set no limit to their speaking, ever come to such misfortune as this.”
And he uttered the following verses:
The tortoise needs must speak aloud,
Although between his teeth
A stick he bit; yet, spite of it
He spoke — and fell beneath
And now, O mighty master, mark it well.
See thou speak wisely, see thou speak in season.
To death the tortoise fell;
He talked too much. That was the reason.
“He is speaking of me!” the king thought to himself; and asked the Bodhisatta if it was so.
“Be it you, O great king, or be it another,” replied he, “whosoever talks beyond measure comes by some misery of this kind.” And so he made the thing manifest. And thenceforward the king abstained from talking, and became a man of few words.
Reproduced from The University of Pittsburgh via Professor D. L. Ashliman; November 2022
Elements of flash fiction
Now that you have seen a relatively modern as well as an ancient example of flash fiction, do you want to learn how to write flash fiction? Let’s get started with the core elements of this style.
Depending upon how long your flash fiction is, you may simply name the characters and let their actions speak about them, or you may provide some backstory, physical descriptions, and mannerisms for the characters to become vivid in the reader’s minds as your story progresses.
Elaboration by example: in The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry tells us about the lady character via her actions (she flops down and howls), and her current situation via her shabby surroundings.
To draw a parallel in the Jataka Tale, we are told at the start about the king’s excessive talking.
Setting the scene is important to provide context to readers. How many words you use to set it is up to you, especially in the first draft when you write flash fiction in English. Language is important to the plot or structure of flash fiction, because some languages lend themselves to this prose style more than others. This is due to the different ways in which languages use words to convey meaning, and some languages do not need as many words as others might.
Elaboration by example: Right from the beginning of The Gift of the Magi, we know that money will play an important part in the story. Heavy words like ‘parsimony’ and ‘mendicancy’ drive home the point, which is hammered in further by the description of the “flat at $8 per week.”
Plot twists are common in flash fiction. They usually occur in the last sentences (or words, if you are brief enough). Common twists are murder or similar subversion of the readers’ expectations. How you build up expectations comes from how you have developed the plot and characters.
Elaboration by example: O. Henry uses the material possessions prized by the characters – the watch and the hair – for the twist in the tale. Both are lost, yet both characters sold them to make the other happy. In the Jataka Tale, a simple rhyme conveys the Bodhisatta’s advice to the king.
- Editing, editing, editing
Finally, we reach the most important stage while writing flash fiction. Trimming the number of words down to the bare minimum is important, as is removing extraneous details from the story. You may be the best editor to begin with, but as you progress in your career as a flash fiction writer, you may benefit from professional editing services as well as writing classes, e.g. HWR’s.
This point is best practiced by yourself. Read and re-read when you write flash fiction to edit it down to the essentials. If a word or phrase is not integral to the story, delete or replace them.
The next section will shine the spotlight on how to write flash fiction. We hope you find it helpful.
How to write flash fiction?
So now you know the elements that go into writing flash fiction. Armed with this knowledge, you can take a stab at publishing flash fiction stories on the Internet. Here’s how you can get started.
- How to get inspired about flash fiction
Daily life with a twist – that is the gist of inspiration for flash fiction. Of course, you may dream up exotic locales in which to set your flash fiction story, or go full throttle and imagine alien worlds, but remember that most relatable short stories are based on almost mundane plots and people.
For example, Franz Kafka’s posthumously published paragraph, titled “Give it up,” is simple on the surface – a person, walking to the train station in the morning, realizes his watch is incorrect:
“It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was walking to the station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized that it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me unsure of the way, I did not yet know my way very well in this town; luckily, a policeman was nearby, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: “From me you want to know the way?” “Yes,” I said, “since I cannot find it myself.” “Give it up! Give it up,” he said, and turned away with a sudden jerk, like people who want to be alone with their laughter.” – Franz Kafka, circa 1920
- How to find inspiration for flash fiction
Read as much as you can, and be aware of your life, your surroundings, the people you interact with (even marginally, like while traveling on public transportation like the metro, trains, or flights.
As you develop your habit of writing flash fiction short stories almost out of thin air, you will become accustomed to endowing unknown people with emotions and actions. Develop this tendency and practice putting words down, whether on paper or digitally, so that you can edit them at your leisure. Be inspired by prolific authors like Isaac Asimov and India’s R K Narayan.
For example, Lydia Davis, a renowned flash fiction writer from America, begins a story thus:
“Sometime in the early summer, a stranger will come and take up residence in our house.”
- How to name your flash fiction stories
This is a tricky bit about flash fiction. Should you foreshadow your story’s twist, if there is one? Should you stick to short titles that do not give away any hint about what is going to happen? Will your flash fiction benefit from a play on an idiom, or using a currently trendy catchy phrase?
Naming a piece of flash fiction is a tough call, no doubt, so you may want to come up with a few options, and discuss them with a person (or two) who you trust for giving constructive criticism.
For example, see this piece of micro flash fiction, titled so rightly it’s ready to burst with feeling:
“I kept myself alive.” – Widow’s First Year, by Joyce Carol Oates
See how the title itself tells us the character [widow] and the plot [recently widowed]. Just four words give us an insight into the mindset of the character, and makes us empathize with her.
Where to publish flash fiction
You may want to give deep thought to where your hard work is presented to readers. There are two major ways of publishing flash fiction, and both are online (but of course). Here they are:
- Reading-focused / self-publishing platforms
Gone are the days when traditional publishing houses held all the power. Now, you have the power (like He-Man)! You can choose from a wide variety of flash fiction publishing websites. Experiment with a few of them to see if you want to get paid, or if you just want your flash fiction to be out there for the world to enjoy, free of cost. With time, you will ideally build a network in the publishing world that will provide you with peers to edit, review and critique your flash fiction.
Some popular platforms (out of the hundreds) for publishing flash fiction (online & offline) are:
- Terribly Tiny Tales
- Story Cabinet
- Flash Fiction Magazine
Want more? Here is a link to a list of 24 websites for flash fiction, ranked by monthly visitors.
If you want to look for earning opportunities, you can join a writing marketplace – websites that connect writers to publishers – like Writer’s Digest or Poets & Writers, and Brevity for non-fiction.
Your work needs to be read by your intended audience, so you can experiment with different websites as well as social media platforms! Instagram has become a hotbed for micro stories presented as images. Simply paste your text on a photo from your phone, and get ‘Gramming!
The popularity of this trend is proved by over a quarter-million posts under [hashtag]flashfiction.
- Should you publish flash fiction on Amazon?
Amazon is a popular platform for self-publishing long-form prose. It has a huge customer base and worldwide marketing, which is great for both budding authors and established prose writers.
On the flip side, Amazon faced criticism from some authors for its promotion-favoring algorithms and constricting terms and conditions when signing up for its author services like KDP Select.
Another drawback of choosing Amazon for publishing flash fiction is that it ‘recommends’ that the length of self-published literature should be 2,500 words or more. This means that there is a bias (algorithmic, human, or both) towards longer forms of literature over micro or flash fiction.
You should assess your preferences and ambitions, and then draw up a list of pros and cons. Let this list guide your choice of publishing platform for flash fiction. To be on the safe side, you can publish flash fiction on Amazon Kindle as well as non-Amazon platforms to compare them.
Here’s a list of 15 Print-on-Demand companies in India that you may want to consider.
TL; DR recap
- How to write flash fiction stories [5 steps]
Step 1 in writing flash fiction:
Write as much as you can, so that you can edit the short stories later at your leisure.
Step 2 in writing flash fiction:
Be open to inspiration from the unlikeliest sources, including the seemingly mundane.
Step 3 in writing flash fiction:
Balance the length of your short story with the emotional weight you want to convey.
Step 4 in writing flash fiction:
Pay extra attention to your flash fiction title and seek good advice from trusted people.
Step 5 in writing flash fiction:
Do not give in to self-doubt. It is the biggest enemy of creativity. Conquer your fears.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also find our article on 17 Types of Creative Writing interesting.
- Polish your writing skills [with HWR]
We hope you enjoyed this guide about how to write flash fiction. Make sure you sign up for HWR’s creative writing classes/courses. To know more about this article’s author, click this link.