I’ll try to keep this essay brief to save irony for the fiction. A reminder to take my advice with a grain of salt, as writing should always be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I have done a few flash fiction reviews on WTW and will be doing some more. Here are some common mistakes I see just skimming the site, and things to keep in mind as you draft and edit.
1. Have characters, a setting, and a plot.
This is flash fiction. It’s easy to see the word count and think that it’s the same thing as prose poetry, but it isn’t. Poetry can focus on flashes of images and dive deep into someone’s thoughts and feelings, but fiction requires a who what and where (why and how are choice details). Think “Is my piece telling a story? What is the story about?” and if the answers are no or insert abstract noun here, reconsider the genre of your piece.
Flash fiction won’t tell the whole story, and that’s okay, but you should have an idea of the beginning middle and end, where your story is, and who it’s about, even if the person the story is about is “I”, who I refer to as the speaker, or “She/he/they/you/it”, the subject. This subject will need some sort of motivation to make them act.
For example, our main character, let’s call them Charlie, wants a cookie. The beginning is Charlie walking up towards the cookie jar(setting: kitchen), knowing that his Mom wouldn’t want him to have one. Then he reaches for a cookie and falls! Oh no! But his mom catches him and isn’t as angry as he thought. All is well.
2. Watch your adjectives
This is writing advice in general. Unless it is coming from a character saying their opinion on a thing, don’t tell the reader what things happened “Fortunately, unfortunately, luckily, horrifically, to their surprise, etc.” Have something happen, and then have the character react. It is more immersive and gives the reader the pleasure of forming their own opinions. All of these phrases can be cut from your draft.
Another poor use of adjectives that especially affects flash fiction is repeating an implication. A classic example, “they smiled happily” essentially tells the reader that a character is happy twice, while “they smiled sadly” changes the image. These adjectives are most useful because they offer a direct contrast.
The last kind of adjectives enhance but don’t directly contrast the noun. These can be replaced with synonyms. “They smiled brightly.” Would be fine if you didn’t have to worry about your word count, but can be easily replaced with “They grinned.” or “They beamed.” In general, using stronger synonyms is better than phrases like “They smiled a lot” or “They ran very fast”. And weaker synonyms should be used in place of “She smiled a little.” or “He almost ran.” When you’re making something weaker in flash fiction, reconsider if it needs to be included in the story at all.
Beware of trying to enhance already-strong language, as “They grinned brightly.” is another case of repeating.
3. Descriptive phrases
Descriptive phrases and cliches can also be cut. Why say “She dug her nails into her palm” when you could say “She tensed”? Because it offers a deeper image? Ask yourself, is this imagery thematically important? Would I notice this movement if I was looking at the character standing across from me?
For example, “He leaned away from her.” tells us there’s probably a conflict between those two characters and makes it thematically important.
These other three points have been a lot of how to remove words from your fiction, but you do have a 99 word count for this prompt. When choosing details, some of it is what to take out, and other things are what to put in. This once again comes down to thematic importance.
Let’s look back at the Charlie’s Cookie example. The theme of that story is, despite the fear Charlie feels at doing something without permission, his mom will be there for him and keep him safe.
Even though it links with my original idea, the fact that Charlie is reaching for a cookie isn’t a necessary detail. I can still include it if it comes up, but it isn’t something I need the reader to know. The fact that Charlie has to reach up high to get the cookie is a necessary detail because if he doesn’t then he can’t fall, his mother can’t catch him, the plot and theme fall apart.
Details that are somewhere in the middle, enhancing but not crucial, should be taken on a case-by-case basis. For instance, I might have Charlie remember that his mom did something scary last week, like send him to bed without dinner, in order to raise the stakes for him. But I would not talk about how the cookies are Charlie’s favorite. As I see it, it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re his favorite because he’s already motivated to get to them, but this is subjective.
On another note, Don’t spend so long building up to your conflict, that you don’t give the conflict itself enough words to feel significant, this can be tempting if you want your last line to be shocking, but it can halt the effect entirely. Reread your piece at a normal speed to look for this.
If you must describe the setting, unless it is a reveal or you have another distinct reason to put it off, it should be done in one sentence and towards the start. If your setting is exciting, it can be the first sentence, and if it’s not-so-exciting it can be the second, but make sure it’s in the beginning.
Flash-fiction is all about the hook, (Janelle Milanes, The guest judge is “looking for something that grabs [her] immediately”), and setting can be boring. A good way to make setting something fun is by having a character interact directly with their surroundings.
“She ducked between two trees and dove under a log.” is far more exciting than “The forest was green or something.” and it takes the tasks of introducing a character, a setting, and opens up for questions (why is she running through the forest like that?) all in one sentence.
Be wary of describing a character’s sight, though. I don’t consider this an interaction with the setting, but rather a waste of words. “She noticed the forest was green or something.” Gives the reader no new information. Sure, now we’re positive she knows the leaves are green, but that was implied anyway.
Also, make sure the consequences of an event come directly after the event itself. In longer writing, you can do a neat trick of slowing the world down. “An event happens! This less important thing occurs that draws the scene in dramatic light. Wait for it...drama...Now the consequence happens!” Unless this is your entire story this isn’t something easy to pull off in flash fiction.
Of course, there are exceptions, especially for humor or irony’s sake (this might as well be my writing motto). I might have Charlie trip, fall, and oh no he’s going to get hurt! Charlie puts the cookie in his mouth and it’s so worth it. And then his mother catches him. That adds something to the story, but it isn’t a detail to get married to if you need to cut it for the final word count.
There you go, writers! Those are my tips and common critiques. I hope you feel more confident about how to write Flash fic! Feel