The Importance of Flash Fiction

Nat RussoFlash, Writing 34 Comments

When I hung my shingle out as a “Writer” on Twitter the most amazing thing happened: People began inviting me to share my work. They invited me to participate in all sorts of promotions and contests. 

One type of contest stood out among the rest: the Flash Fiction contest. Participating in these contests taught me a great deal about myself, and a great deal about writing.

What Is it?

Quite simply, flash fiction is a very short medium. Many of the contests I participated in had word counts that maxed out at 500, and were often no more than 250. 
Yeah…that short.
Ever try telling a story in 250 words when a short manuscript for you is 120 thousand words? It’s a challenge. You hit 250 words quickly. But it’s a challenge well worth accepting. Here’s why.

Flash Fiction Teaches Economy of Words

The importance of being succinct cannot be overstated. Or, to put it succinctly, “Omit needless words.” [Strunk & White, “The Elements of Style”]

It’s inevitable. You’ll agree to participate in a contest that has a maximum word count of 250 words. You’ll tell your story and find that it weighs in at 275 words. Twenty-five words might not seem like a lot, but that’s ten percent of the maximum word count! Imagine having someone tell you that you need to cut 12000 words from your 120000 word manuscript?

So you start cutting. And this is where the magic happens. As you comb through each sentence, word by word, the “needless” words begin to jump off the page at you. You finally come to understand what Strunk and White were talking about. Believe me, you will never understand what “five words too many” means until you’re sitting at 255 words for a 250 word contest.

Go back to the last paragraph you wrote today and cut five words out of it. Tricky, isn’t it. 

Let’s look at it differently. Instead of just slicing five words, take a look at the total word count of that paragraph. Now, see if you can restate what was written using five fewer words. Try this. Your writing will improve.

By way of anecdotal evidence, I cut Necromancer Awakening (my bestselling dark fantasy) from 180k words down to 120k words, improving the story dramatically in the process. It would have been much harder if I didn’t have experience with flash fiction!

Flash Fiction Teaches How To Begin In Medias Res

If you’ve studied the craft of writing, I’m sure you’ve come across the phrase in medias res. It translates, roughly, to “in the middle of things”, which is where a story begins.

Writers…new writers in particular…often find it difficult to determine precisely where their story begins. They’ll write lengthy prologues, or a first chapter that accomplishes little more than setting up a back story that the writer is convinced is necessary.

“But the reader won’t understand without my prologue!” they say.

What’s really going on, however, is the writer is revealing a lack of confidence. Lack of confidence in his/her own ability to convey this information in a fun and interesting way, and lack of confidence in the reader’s ability to infer what’s going on.

I can’t tell you how many critiques I’ve written for other writers whose manuscript just doesn’t work. Worse, they don’t know why. It doesn’t usually take long for me to realize their story doesn’t begin until chapter 2 or 3. That’s too late. You’ve lost the reader by then.

If you’re one of these writers (and God knows I was) flash fiction will cure you of this. You simply don’t have the luxury of word count to present back story as an info dump. It has to happen in the conflict of the story…which is where it belongs, regardless of the length of your medium.

If you’re invited to participate in a contest, or hear of one on your Twitter/Facebook feed, give it a go! Heck, you don’t even need a contest. Just establish your own maximum word count and go!

Don’t know where to start? Google some abstract art and use that as a writing prompt. You’d be surprised how stories will spring from color treatments and other works of art.

Have you written flash fiction? I’d love to hear about it!

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 34

  1. I’ve read a lot of flash fiction, but I haven’t written much. Maybe it’s time I gave it a try. This post hit the nail on the head perfectly. Cut all of those unneeded and unnecessary words. They just weigh you down. 😉

  2. I thought I was following Strunk & White’s advice, until I took a writing class where our CNF pieces had a limit of 400 words. At the end of the first draft I would find myself faced with cutting 50-100 words. The process helped me discover word/phrases that diluted the impact and by cutting, the piece became stronger. It was such an interesting experience. My writing definitely improved.

    1. That was my experience as well, Diane. Nothing helps shine a light on the heart of the story quite like knowing you need to cut a bunch out!

    1. Thanks so much, freyawrites!

      I’m working on a whopper of a manuscript right now: 180k words when it needs to be 120k. In the last two weeks I’ve taken it down to 160k. It’s taking a lot of effort, but I’m convinced that without my past experience with flash fiction I wouldn’t be able to slice and dice the chapters as well as I am.

  3. I was invited to take part in a 365 blog. My one entry was limited to a 365 word count. It was a learning experience, and as Diane mentioned, by cutting the words the piece became stronger. I didn’t realize until today that there was a term for this, Flash Fiction. I will now be on the look out for more such challenges.


    1. I learn something every time I write a piece of flash fiction. Usually something that translates directly into an improvement on my larger work-in-progress.

      The “economy of words” lesson is invaluable.

  4. I write for 2 weekly flash fiction challenges and am getting ready to launch my own. One of the things I’ve discovered by writing flash fiction is that flash is great for creating seedling stories and for working through writer’s block.

  5. I started writing flash fiction to get out of some serious writer’s block. It really did do what you said, forced me to write more succinctly. It also helped me come up with new ideas, some of which I eventually turned into full length short stories. Now I write a 100-word story every week, and just got one published last week. Thanks, flash fiction.

    1. Awesome story, Nigel! Thanks letting me know how it’s worked out for you! I think it’s really cool that you use this as an ongoing tool for idea generation. And congratulations on getting a story published. That’s a huge deal!

  6. I attempted flash fiction a couple of months ago to try and enter something for competition at a local writers group I’d just joined. I loved it and ended up writing a couple and entered one for another competition as well. It will be interesting to see the feedback at the local group to see if it was any good or not but whatever the outcome it really did improve my writing. I really enjoyed having something so small to bash into shape – made a change from manhandling a full novel! I will certainly do some more.

  7. I’ve also learned a lot from participating in Flash Fiction. I often do the 100-word Flash Fiction and I also have learned a lot from doing 35-word pitches.
    When you have so few words to regale so much, you learn the power of restraint 🙂

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  8. I write for a weekly flash contest and I agree that it helps to teach you how to edit yourself. I am actually in the process of taking several of my flash pieces and turning them into a novel…I wrote each with the same characters and basic storyline in mind. Writing Flash actually helped me get past the writer’s block on this particular story. When you only have to come up with 150 words at a time and an skip around in the story…well it helped me anyway!

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      That is a great point, Charity! Flash fiction is another great tool in getting around writer’s block. I’ve also found it’s a great tool for getting into a creative “mind set” at the beginning of a writing session. This way I’m not spending a lot of time “warming up” in my actual work-in-progress.

  9. I would like to add this article to my writing blog. Is that all right?

    I do believe that the exercise is to write as well as you can as opposed to as much as you can. It’s a great exercise!

    Thanks for a great article!


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      Go for it, C.C.! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      You’re absolutely correct. It’s about quality over quantity, and flash fiction has a way of teaching us economy of words that few other exercises do.

  10. Pingback: What You Learn From Writing Flash Fiction - West Lothian Writers

  11. Great article. I should write flash fiction more often.

    Keeping things concise is useful for any kind of writing. When I submitted a humorous non-fiction piece to a newspaper the editor asked me to shorten it from 400 words to 150. That was hard! But I did it, and managed to keep most of the humour.

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      It’s amazing how few words are sometimes required to tell a story! In books I’m having a difficult time reading, it’s rarely because the author didn’t include enough information. It’s usually because I find myself skimming over extraneous sections or just saying to myself, “Come on! Get to the point already!”

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