Some novelists write short stories, maybe to practice their skills, make some extra money or develop their reputation as a writer, while others focus solely on their books. It depends on what works best for each writer, I suppose, whether you prefer to focus your time on one project or jump between them. I’m the latter, but I do feel that writing short stories, and especially flash fiction, has made me a better novel writer and editor and can do the same for other novelists as well. This is because flash fiction requires an editing skill that all novelists should learn.
What is flash fiction? It is a piece of prose generally between 300 and 1000 words, but the definition is rather broad. The most famous piece of flash fiction is probably the six word short story that Ernest Hemingway wrote on a bet:
For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.
Here are some more great examples from some best selling novelists.
I wrote my first piece of flash fiction when I discovered a contest I really wanted to enter, but the word count was a measly 400 words. My first draft was close to 2000 words.
Obviously I had some ruthless editing to do. It meant cutting out bits of dialogue I thought were hilarious, visual metaphors I thought were ever so clever and even essentials like character descriptions. I even had to cut out the ending. Even so, my second draft was closer to 1600 words but I kept chopping and chopping until I had the bare 400 word bones.
But I soon discovered that all of my ruthless butchering was doing a miraculous thing; I was eliminating everything that was non-essential to my story. Yes, I thought that some parts were awfully clever but they were actually weakening the story.
I had also run into the trap of ending my story on a ‘clever’ punchline. These rarely if ever work in stories. Instead I just got straight to the point, like Hemingway did in the above story. It was so much better than rambling on pointlessly to show the reader how funny and clever I am.
When I applied this same technique while editing my novel, and editing client’s novels, I found that it was working wonders. There was so much frantic attempts to reach the NANOWIMO word count which built the foundations of my story but was essentially worthless.
Yes, classic books are full of needless exposition but modern readers have much shorter attention spans which means unnecessary padding is considered a sign of bad writing. You may have to kill your darlings and cut out some of your best lines, but what is left will be amazing.
How to write flash fiction:
I try to write flash fiction using the same structure that 4-panel news paper comics use.
Panel 1 – Set the scene.
Panel 2 – Develop the story.
Panel 3 – Climax.
Panel 4 – Conclusion and consequences.
This way, you can establish all the essentials like location and characters in just a few sentences, tell the story in a few hundred words with a beginning, middle and end and then close it satisfactorily.
Try some of these:
- Write a few flash fiction stories, just for fun, not to show anyone, and cut your word count down each time. Do you notice an improvement in the story quality?
- Write a 4 panel comic using the above structure(don’t worry if like me you can only draw stick figures).
- Re-write your novel in a six word story. Seriously, try it!