The Challenge of Writing Flash Fiction

Microfiction, nanofiction, sudden fiction, flash fiction: some of the many names for short fiction. Definitions vary, but the key is brevity. Some publications stretch the definition to 2,000 words, but many are looking for several hundred words.

When all you get is a glimpse, it has to be spectacular.

Flash fiction demands special skills. Narrative must begin as close to the climax as possible. Denouement is hinted at. Word choice is crucial.

Twitter has prompted some short fiction writers to distill storytelling into 140 character tales. Or even shorter. For yesterday’s Canada Writes Twitter Challenge, entries had to be no more than 126 characters so the submission tweet could include the hashtag #canadawrites.

The classic example of powerful microfiction is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, though it may actually be the work of John deGroot.

For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

What makes microfiction challenging?

Concise storytelling. There is no time to set up the story. More must be implied than said. And yet, there must be a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Formatting your story like a joke is highly effective: a quick set-up followed by a twisted resolution.

The entries in this week’s CanadaWrites challenge showed how hard it is to tell a story in 126 characters. Many of the entries described a moment or a turning point. Others conveyed the inciting incident and hinted at a possible resolution. Few truly told a story. Some gave up on narrative entirely and simply presented a poetic moment.

The fun in writing short forms come from the tight restrictions. Arjun Basu has written thousands of Twisters (140 character stories) since discovering Twitter. He has a searchable database of them here.

Short fiction isn’t easy, but it can be fun. And, because the form is short, you can write a lot of bad first drafts quickly to keep the muse engaged.

I learned about the Canada Writes Twitter Challenge about an hour before it started. By the end of the submission period, I had submitted several entries and discarded more. Unsurprisingly, the best were the ones I spent more time revising. And I had some ideas that I just couldn’t distill. But the challenge was invigourating.

Have you tried any of these very short forms of storytelling? What is your experience of this type of structure?


Posted on October 25, 2011, in Creativity, This Writing Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Good, thoughtful summary. The only place where I’d diverge slightly from your thinking is this: I prefaced my own four entries with a tweet noting that a twitter story had to walk a fine line between a pitch and an actual story.

    You wrote, “And yet, there must be a story: a beginning a middle and an end.”
    I don’t think it’s possible to have a full ‘narrative’ in 126 characters without turning it into staccato, telegraphic literature or duckspeak, which seems like a failure to me, since it would abandon the idea that it’s even writing at all.

    So I tried to deliberately *infer* narrative instead. Which ended up producing ‘stories’ with a beginning and an end, or a beginning and a middle, or a middle and an end, with the missing piece in each case merely implied.

    I don’t know if I succeeded…

  2. Kate Arms-Roberts

    Thanks for pointing out the need for inference in telling such short stories.

    Inferred narrative is definitely a crucial part of the form. The entire story is there, but not all of it is in the text.

    An interesting question is how much can be left to the reader to infer.

    My favourite piece of the day was Robert J Wiersema’s sample story, which inferred both the beginning and the middle.


  3. Hi Kate,

    This is very interesting, I’ve never tried something like this. I know you state that the flash can stop just short of climax and only hint at the denouement, but you’ve left me hanging with this post. Can’t you share some of the flashes you came up with? Please? 🙂


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