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Outside the Square - Writing Publishable Short
Boost Your Writing Income and get Paid to Write
By G. W. Thomas
With the advent of the Internet, editors are
looking for shorter works, more easily read on a computer
screen. The current term is "flash fiction", a
tale between 300-1000 words long. Longer than
micro-fiction (10-300 words) but shorter than traditional
short stories (3000-5000 words preferred by most
magazines), flash fiction is usually a story of a single
act, sometimes the culmination of several unwritten
This article will offer several strategies for writing
flash fiction. Used by themselves or in combination, the
writer can focus their story to that brief, interesting
The small idea
Look for the smaller ideas in larger ones. To discuss the
complex interrelationship of parents and children you'd
need a novel. Go for a smaller piece of that complex
issue. How kids feel when they aren't included in a
conversation. What kids do when they are bored in the
car. Middle child. Bad report card. Find a smaller topic
and build on it.
Bury the preamble in the opening
When you write your story, don't take two pages to
explain all the pre-story. Find a way to set it all in
the first paragraph, then get on with the rest of the
Start in the middle of the action
Similar to #2, start the story in the middle of the
action. A man is running. A bomb is about to go off. A
monster is in the house. Don't describe any more than you
have to. The reader can fill in some of the blanks.
Focus on one powerful image
Find one powerful image to focus your story on. A
war-torn street. An alien sunset. They say a picture
worth a thousand words. Paint a picture
with words. It doesn't hurt to have something happen
inside that picture. It is a story after all.
Make the reader guess until the end
A little mystery goes a long way. Your reader may have no
idea what is going on for the majority of the story. This
will lure them on to the end. When they finish, there
should be a good pay off or solution.
Use allusive references
By using references to a commonly known story you can
save yourself all those unnecessary words. Refer to
historical events. Use famous situations from literature.
If the story takes place on the Titanic you won't have to
explain what is going to happen, who is there or much of
anything. History and James Cameron have already done it
for you. Beware of using material that is too obscure.
Your reader should be able to make the inferences.
Use a twist
Like #5, the twist ending allows the writer to pack some
punch at the end of the story. Flash fiction is often
twist-ending fiction because
you don't have enough time to build up sympathetic
characters and show how a long, devastating plot has
affected them. Like a good joke, flash fiction is often
streamlined to the punch-line at the end.
Let's look at these techniques in my story "Road
Test". I wanted to write a story about taking my
driving exam. I didn't mention the pre-test or
practicing. Just the test. (#1 THE SMALL IDEA) This
narrows our subject down to a manageable scene.
I didn't have room to describe the driving examiner in
detail. I set my main character in two sentences.(#2 BURY
THE PREAMBLE) "The man in the government-issued suit
sat down without looking at the person across from him.
We've established the main character and his chief flaws.
(He's mediocre and probably hates his job.)
I started in the middle of the action by having the
driver very quickly go from good driving to dangerous
driving. Johnson, the driving examiner
realizes the driver is not human but goat-headed (#3
START IN THE MIDDLE). "He had changed. The beard was
longer, the skin darker and two large curved horns
crowned his skull." This creates tension and has
created an image: a man trapped in a speeding car with a
monster (#4 A POWERFUL IMAGE). It pushes the reader on
because they want to know what will happen next, maybe
why is it happening? We won't tell them until the end (#5
KEEP THEM GUESSING).
The monster keeps yelling the same word,
"Pooka!" Johnson begins to understand. He knows
the old fairy stories about the Pooka, about how they
pretended to be horses so they could drown their victims.
Now is the time for resolution, our great twist ending
that no one sees coming (#7 TWIST ENDING). As the monster
crashes the car into a pond, Johnson realizes a
modern-day Pooka wouldn't look like a horse, but would
use a car. The car crashes and we finish with: "They
would die, only Johnson would live long enough to feel
those large goatish teeth chewing the flesh from his
bones. The souped-up V8 hit the slick surface
of the pond like a fist into jello. Windshield collapsed
under tons of water, washing away the high, shrill
laughter of the driver."
"Road Test" clocks in at 634 words. It is
essentially a man gets killed by a monster story, but the
crux of the idea is "How would mythological
creatures adapt to the modern world?" This is really
the small idea. The allusions to the Pooka will work for
some, but I gave enough explanation to help those that
don't know about the old stories.
This example story was chosen because it illustrated all
7 methods. Using only one in a flash story can be enough.
Writing flash fiction is a great way for writers to write
everyday, even when larger projects seem to daunting or
they are pressed for time. Using these short cuts can
have you writing in minutes.
G. W. Thomas has appeared in over 100 different books and
magazines. His micro story "Nano-Hunk" won the
Zine Guild Award for Best SF Micro Fiction 2000.