We’re so lucky to have this essay by Tara Laskowski. Tara has been the editor for flash fiction publication Smokelong Quarterly since 2010, and is the authority on short short stories. Today, she writes about The Three “Ls” of flash fiction and how to craft pieces that are both memorable and powerful. If you’re thinking of submitting to our Flash Fiction Contest or to Smokelong’s wonderful library, read on and enjoy!
The Three “L”s You Need to Make Lovely Little Fictions
My son loves those little sponges you buy at the grocery store that come condensed in pill form, but when dissolved in water pop open to reveal a large, colorful animal to play with in the bath. He enjoys the surprise of watching them open up and become something delightful. It is a certain magic.
A good flash fiction story does something similar. It can be tiny and unassuming, but you realize when you begin reading how much it expands and reveals. Whole worlds and histories hang on beautiful descriptions and rhythm, and the great ones can make you weep, laugh, or cut you to the core (sometimes all three at once).
The hard part, of course, is producing those great pieces of flash. Many writers new to the form assume that it’s all about the word count. “They’re just really short stories, right?” we say, sometimes lobbing off scenes and descriptions from longer stories to get them below the word count of a particular publication’s guidelines.
While length is certainly a factor, there is much more that goes in to making an excellent piece of flash. I like to think in terms of “three Ls”—length being one, but also language and the linger effect. Put together, these three “L”s can turn your flash fiction from a story that just happens to be short to something verging on magical.
You can’t start a discussion about flash fiction without talking about length. Flash fictions, generally, are stories that are 1000 words or less. Within that word count you can further subdivide—microfictions are generally 100-200 words, Twitter fictions are 140 characters, or the length of one tweet.
You can easily get caught up in definitions and word counts, but you’d be missing the point. It’s not just about how long a story is; it’s about how long it should be. I believe that stories will tell us how long they need to be. When you come up with a concept for a story, you’ll often guess how long it might be. A novel idea feels different than a short story idea. But when you start to write, sometimes that idea morphs into something else. Sometimes the animal that emerges from the sponge is a zebra, not a fish. If you embrace that change it can lead to surprising paths.
I’ve often sat down to write a piece of flash fiction only to realize that the story needed to be longer. The characters became more interesting than I first thought, or the plot became too complex to resolve in just one or two pages.
Here’s an extreme example on the other spectrum: I wrote a 500+ page novel for my MFA thesis. I struggled with it over many years, and in revising it for a third or fourth time, I pulled a 250-word excerpt that felt self-contained and submitted it to Wigleaf. They published that story. I now believe I might’ve spent close to ten years writing that novel just to get that one piece of flash out of it.
I would not advise writing a novel in order to get to a flash, but my point is that you have to trust that your story will eventually tell you how long it wants to be. We get a lot of submissions at SmokeLong Quarterly, the flash fiction journal I edit, where our staff comments, “This just doesn’t feel like flash.” Meaning, it’s a story that needs to be something else and just hasn’t found out yet what that is. Trying to squish a full-length traditional story into a flash will read like you’ve tried to get last winter’s coat on your growing toddler—the arms are too short and the poor kid can’t breathe. Give him room. Let him inhale.
On the other hand, if what you are working on is of flash length, pare it down to its essence. Edit, edit, edit. Cut out unnecessary words. Be precise. In flash more than any other fiction genre, it is important to be economical. If your character says, “Oh you scared me,” you don’t need to explain that the character is frightened. Don’t be afraid to make the reader work a little. They will take the leaps with you.
Flash fiction sounds beautiful when it’s read aloud. That is because writers of flash are often drawn to detail, a savoring of word choice, and a contemplation of rhythm and cadence. There’s a reason flash is sometimes called prose poetry—like poets, writers of flash fictions are careful and attentive. Every. Word. Counts.
That’s why it’s so important to clean up those lazy metaphors and similes. A lazy description in a piece of flash will stick out like a … you know I have to do it … sore thumb. Oh, go ahead—I give you permission to throw them all out there in the first round. Get that messy draft out of your brain and onto the page. But then work the magic. Are those eyes really as blue as the sky? Or are they the color of the swimming pool liner your character used to clean every day during his summer job?
Specific, original, and fitting descriptions will give the story confidence and authority. If you relish in word choice, then flash fiction is for you.
My favorite effect of good flash fiction is also the hardest to accomplish. Even though it only takes a few moments to read, the story should stay with your reader long after they’ve read the final word. Some of my favorite flash fictions are ones I first read many years ago and still remember, still think about, and still go back to re-read often. They linger. They implant on your brain and won’t let go.
One of the most memorable stories I ever published as editor of SmokeLong is “Belly of a Fish” by Rachel Mangini. Here is a story that does more in 250 words than a lot of traditional-length stories can do in 20+ pages. The story gets at the heartache of teenage years, and it does so in a fresh and original way. The entire action of the story boils down to one kiss, and yet by the end you feel like you know this world and these people and can feel their pain.
This hint at a larger world—at pasts and futures of the characters—is a great way to get the lingering effect of flash and also to give your story a sense of urgency. Have you ever driven through a neighborhood at night and gotten glimpses into homes—caught the people inside eating dinner, watching television, dancing, arguing? Flash is that drive-by—it’s the few fleeting moments we get in these characters’ lives that give us a taste of what their whole world is like. It’s the small moment of change, the tiny epiphany, that works well in flash fiction.
Another way to get the lingering effect is to have a killer ending. If you’ve ever watched an Olympics gymnastics balance beam routine, holding your breath that the athlete sticks that landing, then you know the feeling I have when I read a submission that starts out really well. I’m rooting for the writer to carry it through to the end, because if that isn’t right then all the spectacular twists and leaps and twirls that came before won’t matter and will keep them off the medal stand.
So what do you want in a perfect ending? You want an image or an action that both ties everything together and also hints at more. You want a delightful mix of resolution and open-endedness that’s so hard to do. Check out the ending of “Belly of a Fish” and you’ll see what I mean—that closing image of icing down a muscle is both a reference back to the beginning of the piece and a new hint at April’s emotions and heartache. It’s subtle but wrenching.
One piece of advice I always give to new writers of flash fiction (or honestly, any form of fiction) is to look at your beginning and your ending. Does the story start where it should, or are you backing into the story and giving us too much information up front? Can the story end a sentence or a paragraph earlier? Hone in on the details that are most effective and you’ll get a story that’s packed with energy and ready to explode.
Finally, Have Fun
One of the loveliest things about flash fiction is the sense of play and experimentation that the form lends itself to. Don’t be afraid to have fun with your stories, to do things that your writing teacher said you were never supposed to do. Write a 200-word story that spans 100 years. Tell a tale using only newspaper headlines. Let your main character be a lizard. Get super gory or crazy funny. Write something that you’re scared to write or that you don’t think you can. Play! Experiment! Try! I think you’ll find you have more magic in you then you thought.
Tara Laskowski’s short story collection Bystanders won the Balcones Fiction Prize and was hailed by Jennifer Egan as “a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills.” She is also the author of Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Since 2010, she has been the editor of the online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly.