How to Pen Profitable Flash Fiction: 5 Things You Need to Know

Posted by Amanda Ellison

What's the secret of flash fiction that sells?

The answer is easy: it's expert knowledge of the medium, being able to pack maximum impact into a form defined by its brevity, and knowing where to get published.

So you may be wondering how you can access this knowledge and start writing fiction that is of value - whether that value be monetary or simply exposure of your work.

This is where this 'Fabulous Fives' post can help you out.

Here, I share the basics of flash fiction and get you on the road to producing and publishing perfectly succinct prose. And if you want more, there's a free download at the bottom of the page!

1. Size Matters

The short story as a genre is nothing new; we've all heard of Aesop's Fables and the famously dark tales by the Brothers Grimm. And in the age of Twitter, compression is back in fashion with a vengeance. 

Flash fiction often goes other names, such as nano-tales and postcard fiction. But what constitutes flash fiction and sets it apart from others short prose forms? One of its defining factors is word-count. The following list is your guide to word counts according to genre.

  • Flash - maximum 1500 words (commonly under 1000)
  • Sudden - maximum 750 words
  • Micro-fiction (drabble) - maximum 100 words
  • Mini-saga (dribble) - maximum 50 words
  • Twitterature - maximum 280 characters
  • Six-Word Story - well, 6 words! 

Anything longer than 1500 words comes under the umbrella of a short story - usually between 2000 and 5000 words. And once you hit between 7500 and 175000 words you're in novelette territory. 

You can practise working within word count constraints by undertaking creative writing exercises such as those suggested by Masterclass and John Fox.

So where definitions are concerned, size really does matter.

2. Tension Matters

Brevity by its very nature lends itself to high tension. Flash fiction must, of necessity, be tight and self-contained. This is not a medium for serialisation. 

And for tension to be present, you need conflict. There are different kinds of conflict you can put to work in your story -  the following are commonly used:

  • Conflict between the main character (protagonist) and another character
  • Internal conflict of some sort (a microcosmic Hamlet!)
  • External conflict (the protagonist against society)

Whatever type you choose, just make sure you have it. Take a look at Sticks by George Saunders and identify the type of conflict being employed.

And don't over-complicate the conflict - remember to KISS: Keep it simple, stupid!

3. Structure Matters

Structure really does matter in flash fiction. All that tension and conflict goes to waste if not organised properly. Like most fiction, it requires a narrative arc with a clear hook, climax and denouement (preferably surprising, shocking, or dramatic in some way).

Forget at your peril that your story's title is the first hook - and hook you must. Economy of expression is vital - every word must be loaded with meaning. Urban legend has it that Ernest Hemingway penned this six-word story (the forerunner of flash fiction):

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” 

So from the outset you really need to grab the reader. Flash fiction often opens in medias res - in other words, in the middle of the action. This is a pretty effective default strategy and eliminates the need for lengthy exposition of background details. A good way to do this is to open with a question. Given the format of this fiction, the question will need to be answered fairly swiftly. Nevertheless, following up with another question helps sustain the suspense. 

And the narrative voice is all-important: this must be strong, and sustained throughout the whole piece. Fiction is usually written in first or third person viewpoint, but the used of second person can add a unique twist. You can check out the benefits of using the second person here.

With such a tight word limit, exterminate any extraneous characters or sub-plots; characters should be kept to a minimum. Likewise, lengthy descriptions of setting are generally surplus to requirements and detract from the tightness of the form. The best way to add description is through loaded vocabulary - particularly verbs. 

As for editing, this needs to be brutal and ruthless; the common piece of advice given to writers is 'kill your darlings' - an imperative in flash fiction.

For exemplification, read Mark Twain's A Telephonic Conversation and Virginia Woolf's A Haunted House and identify some of the features described here. 

4. Motifs Matter

One of the key distinguishing features of flash fiction is the use of a motif. This is not to be confused with a symbol. A symbol need only be used once, as with the skull in Hamlet. A motif, however, is a recurring image that is loaded with symbolic meaning. The motif not only conveys meaning in a compressed manner but acts a cohesive structural device. 

There are several examples of the motif used effectively in film and literature: in Jane Eyre the use of fire takes on different meanings according to context, connoting abstract concepts such as passion and destruction; fans of The Godfather may be familiar with the recurring appearance of oranges to symbolise vitality, only to be juxtaposed with death and decay.

To add a motif to your own fiction, consider the key themes of your story. If, say, one of your themes is the complexity of a character or a situation, then an onion may perform as a serviceable motif; a theme of time running out may be well served by a motif of bells ringing; a theme of restriction or oppression may be reflected through a chained necklace. 

So in terms of adding layers to your story, reflecting mood or theme, or creating a thread throughout your prose, bag yourself a motif - it matters.

5. Getting Published Matters!

So once you have sharpened your craft, there's only one thing to be done: get published.

The following publications often accept submissions.

Jellyfish Review

Flash Fiction Magazine

Journal of Compressed Creative Arts

3 Elements

Ghost Parachute

After the Pause

Molotov Cocktail

SmokeLong Quarterly

Rose Metal Press

A-Minor

Apple Valley

Brevity

100 Word Story

Pank

3AM Magazine

Before submitting, it's worth taking a look at each publication's submission requirements - read these carefully as your work can be automatically rejected on the basis of something completely avoidable, such as font size or line spacing.

In closing ...

If you found any of this information useful, or indeed have anything to share on the subject of flash fiction, I'd love to hear from you. 

You can say your piece in the comments below or contact me via Twitter. LinkedIn or by sending to info@ellisonwrites.co.uk

Over to you!

 

Five Top Tips For Crafting Flash Fiction
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