The Power of Flash Fiction, by Randy Ingermanson
Writing flash fiction is good for you, in the same way that running hills is good for you. It makes you strong.
Flash fiction is very short fiction with a strict word count limit. That forces you to do three hard things:
- Get your story structure right before you start
- Make every word pull its weight
- Make every sentence do “double-duty” in plot, characters, story world, and/or theme
Last summer my friend Ben Wolf asked me to write a story for Havok, one of the flash fiction magazines he publishes. The story had to be 1000 words or less, and this particular issue’s theme would be “mixing genres.” Writing flash fiction in one genre is hard enough, but making it work in two is even tougher.
I’m not sure what possessed me, but I agreed to write a story for Ben. I decided to mix werewolves with space travel.
So I wrote a story, “The First Werewolf on Mars.” I’ve already published a couple of Mars novels, so I know a thing or two about the Red Planet. And when my kids were very young, I used to tell them I was a werewolf. High qualifications for writing a werewolf story.
It turned out to be tougher than I expected to write the story within my 1000 word limit. I had to make a series of decisions and then live by them. In this article, I’ll talk about what I learned.
Here are the issues I faced in writing the story:
Issue 1: Story Structure
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m used to writing a novel where I’ve got tens of thousands of words for each of these.
But with 1000 words total, I had to make a strict word-count budget. I decided on this plan:
- Beginning: 250 words
- Middle: 500 words
- End: 250 words
I also decided that I’d use the usual Three Disaster Structure that I use for novels. The three disasters are equally spaced, which means I had to have disasters at roughly the 250-word, 500-word, and 750-word points in the story.
What I learned: The Three Disaster Structure works even for very short fiction. There wasn’t a lot of time to develop each disaster, but when you’re on a tight budget, you can make it work.
I decided to make the stakes of the story life-or-death. And I also wanted the werewolf to be the person in jeopardy.
That led me to a key decision on my story world…
Issue 2: Story World
According to the usual rules of werewolves, you become a werewolf by being bitten by a werewolf. At the full moon, you transform involuntarily. While transformed, you’re extremely dangerous.
But I wanted my werewolf to be the protagonist. I wanted him to be likable. And I wanted him to be able to transform at will. So I changed some of the rules.
In my world, werewolves are pacifists. They hate violence. They don’t fight. They don’t bite. Which is a problem. If they don’t bite, where do they come from?
In my world, werewolves are born, not made. Werewolfism is due to a rare recessive gene. A werewolf is a human who inherits the werewolfism gene from both parents.
It’s generally agreed that werewolves, when in human form, are often very attractive. I kept this rule for my story world.
What I learned: Rules are just rules of thumb. If you don’t like them, you can change them—as long as you make the rules of your story world clear.
I also wanted my werewolf to have more than just one problem. I wanted him to be a loner among werewolves. So I decided to give him Asperger’s Syndrome. To understand the problems this causes for him, we need to know more about the backstory…
Issue 3: Backstory
As my title makes clear, my protagonist is the first werewolf on Mars. What’s he doing there?
Answer: he’s on the run. Earth is currently in the grip of werewolf hysteria. Humans don’t understand that werewolves are harmless, and they want all werewolves killed.
When not transformed, werewolves look exactly like humans—at least to human eyes. Recently, geneticists have found a DNA test for the werewolfism gene. Privacy laws prevent universal testing in principle, but in practice, you can be forcibly tested if there’s probable cause.
The werewolves are being decimated, and because they’re pacifists, they don’t fight back.
Werewolves can often guess who other werewolves are by subtle facial cues that are invisible to humans. These cues are not 100% accurate, so it’s become very dangerous for werewolves to try to find others like themselves.
Unfortunately, our hero has Asperger’s, and he has always been unable to recognize these facial cues. Feeling desperately alone, he emigrated a few years ago to Mars, where he hoped to escape werewolf hysteria. He is currently Sheriff in the small community Mars Colony 1.
Being a werewolf makes your life difficult. Being Aspie makes your life difficult. Being both makes your life massively more difficult.
What I learned: When it comes to having personal problems, 1 + 1 = 10.
So I threw in a third personal problem. Our hero is in love with the wrong person. She’s his new deputy, a brand new immigrant from earth. She’s young, she’s beautiful, and she’s brimming over with werewolf hysteria.
The story begins when this deputy, Katja, discovers proof that there’s a real live werewolf on Mars. That’s the logical place to begin the story, but the question was how to end it…
Issue 4: Surprise Ending Or No Surprise Ending?
As I read through some past issues of Havok (and its sister publications), I found that a lot of the stories had surprise endings. I’m not a big fan of surprise endings. Not if that’s the whole point of the story.
If the payoff of the story is nothing more than the surprise, then the reader who sees the surprise coming won’t get any payoff. And the reader who doesn’t see it coming may feel like you intentionally withheld information to make the surprise work.
The story I had in mind ends with a twist. I assume that some of my readers will see it coming and some won’t. Should I change the story to avoid having a surprise ending?
I decided to use the twist. It seemed a natural ending to me, which tells me a lot of readers will see it coming. That’s fine with me. In my view, there’s still an emotional payoff to the story, whether you see the twist coming or not. I’ve edited the story at least twenty times, and I still like the payoff, even though I know what’s coming.
What I learned: If you don’t like a particular writing technique, ask yourself why. It may turn out that it’s not the technique you dislike, it’s something associated with the technique.
Writing the Story
Writing the story was both easier and harder than I expected.
The first draft was easy to write. Working from my three-act/three-disaster structure, I drilled out the story in about an hour. I knew how long each part had to be, and I kept them all on budget.
That’s an important lesson: Setting the word budget up front is much easier than imposing it after the story’s written.
Revisions were hard. When you have a strict limit on word-count, every word you add means there’s a word you have to subtract somewhere. It can get infuriating. I wound up working over the story for several hours. When I sent it in, it had exactly 1000 words, which was the limit.
My editor sent back comments fairly soon. He liked the story. As I’d expected, he saw the ending coming. But there was one point he didn’t understand—it looked to him like a logic error.
It wasn’t a mistake. It was a miscommunication, which is just as bad.
So I had to do some serious revisions to clarify that point. I added a couple of extra sentences to make the story logic clear, but now I was over-budget on my word count.
I solved this problem by trimming the section that debunked the usual werewolf myths. That reduced my word count and simplified my story world.
That’s another important lesson: You can always cut more. You may have to simplify things, but you can always cut more.
Flash fiction makes you a better writer. It forces you to write tighter, more strategically.
Have you ever tried it?
Give it a whirl. It’s harder than it looks.
Once you’ve written it, consider submitting it for publication to one of Splickety Publishing Group’s three flash fiction magazines:
- Splickety Prime—multiple genres.
- Splickety Love—romance.
If you’re not familiar with flash fiction, you might want to try reading some.
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 12,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com