I’ve been thinking about how to write a piece of flash fiction. How to fit the components of a story in 1,200 words? I accidentally write 250-500 word stories. I have no intention of writing a particular scene as a complete story. Those short story paragraphs are in the middle of a longer piece. That actually works really well. If each scene has all the parts of a story, then multiple scenes build a longer piece.
Learning about this length of a story, 1,200 words should help my story writing a ton. It’ll help me find the essential parts of a story. What can be left out, and what can’t. It’ll teach me more ways a story can go. And writing that word count should take me a day to type out. That’s how I learn best. I closely study things related to my primary goal. Flash fiction is so close to novel writing, we’re splitting hairs. Most writers practice with short stories before getting into longer things. I also want to get published somewhere. This new skill will help.
I was researching literary magazines for somewhere to send my future short stories. That means, for me opening tabs in my browser of potential magazines. I screen through for criteria the precludes a few things that aren’t feasible for me. I’m not happy ordering a print copy because that’s difficult for me to access. I’m not sure about ordering digital versions from providers with worrisome persistence. If a digital service shuts down, it’s possible you lose access to everything on there. That means publications with a few free examples. At first, I was going through the list at Writer’s & Poet’s. Then I found a list for new writer’s. All those tabs are open in my browser.
I add each to this spreadsheet I keep. That includes the description of what they want and submission guidelines. I read through two pieces and a lot more if they’re shorter. I started researching The Zodiac Review. It’s just flash fiction. I’ve come across a lot of magazines that accept flash fiction. Given the fact that the majority of the short stories featured on Radical GK are less than 1,000 words, it should be pretty easy, right?
Well, it’s not. Those stories aren’t exactly complete. Those were designed with emotional impact in mind. They weren’t supposed to be stories in themselves. And they bear that out. The writing is lyrical but too difficult to understand. Look at The Sum of an Empty Life. About 13% in, C decides to wait for Brian Whalen. That’s the first plot point which is supposed to happen 20-25% in. The second plot point is C walking away with Brian’s briefcase. That happens 44% through the story. That’s nearly right. The part where C figures out the combo is the third plot point. That’s 79% in. The fact I wrote that story two years into my writing journey is amazing to me. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The story structure is nearly spot on.
I didn’t come prepared to write this post. That simply means I’ll discover something in the process. The last paragraph planted an idea. Maybe I should just forget about everything I learned in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks and return to the way I used to do things. Just maybe.
Anyway in my research, I found a few ways to tell a story in 1,200 words. There’s this much longer piece (The Watchers). It feels like that method could be brought over to this. You list the scenes with a break between each scene. That could work, right?
Some story lines are better for that method. If the story is done so much that the reader knows the sequence of scenes. If it isn’t scene after scene in rapid succession. Some time can pass between each scene. For example the development of PTSD in soldiers. It usually isn’t one event (scene), but a long series of stressful events. If the sequence of scenes isn’t all that important, or the sequence of scenes doesn’t matter. For example the story of going from place to place, a travel story. Establishing the connections between scenes is tricky. And the reader is always searching for how much time passed between each scene.
There’s this other story (The Game) that uses another technique to tell flash fiction. I call it the slow reveal. It combines story with exposition. That works well when one event exemplifies a continuing pattern. I’ll provide an example of my own below. As the indicative event takes place, exposition adds the missing plot points on their time cues. The plot points can come from the exemplifying event or the flashbacks to the continuing pattern. In the piece I linked to, the first plot point is the generalization of what usually happens (20% in). The second plot point is how they act towards each other, the protagonist and his competition who is also his friend (53% in) Then the argument about who won (77% in). That matches the established structure nearly to a tee. That’s the structure from Story Engineering. I have another shorter example from this blog I follow.
The last technique is the obvious one, writing it like a regular story except having the transformation happen in one scene. Like when a battle turns into a win. What happens is the enemy heavily bombards you. A new enemy weakness is discovered, and you defeat them. That isn’t too difficult.
1,200 word stories need a plot that works with the length. Too complicated, hard to explain plots are much harder to get across in the limited space. More nuance can be achieved with the second technique, the slow reveal. That’s using one event to establish a pattern of behavior. That kind of feels like cheating to me.
A story needs to do a number of jobs in sequence as Story Engineering taught me in definable terms. Here’s the list from memory. Gain sympathy for the character from something bad happening. Establish the character or stakes. Basically the before state. Then the character decides to take the quest which is the first plot point. The character responds to what the choice brings. The character finds something internally or externally that allows them to face the conflict, second plot point. They fight against the conflicting force and lose. The character finds the missing piece to success and the will to do anything to prevail, third plot point. The events play out, enemy defeat or character dying in the process. That story I divided into plot points above shows there are many ways to fill those requirements. Accept the challenge, get permission to engage, and proof they will do anything to remain friends. You can combine those requirements anyway that works into different scenes as long as the sequence doesn’t change. That means anywhere from one scene on up.
This is an example plot. Abuse story: woman is abused, entering relationship flashback, hiding bruises at work, buying a gun flashback, trying to talk about it with support person, returning home hoping he isn’t there, pushed to the ground changes her mind to kill him, murder then admitting to self-defense. You could easily replace any of those scenes with anything the fills the same purpose.
Hiding from abuser, has to return for belongings, friend doesn’t show up so leave, buying gun/pepper spray, return to get stuff and defend, stalking causes restraining order, face him with gun, run away/disappear.
Fear with partner, abuse cause visible symptoms, run away, abuser follows and finds, ran away after facing enemy, finds new partner, kill abuser together, live free from suspicion.
All of those work. A different method perhaps, but it’s doable. Those are my explorations of 1,200 word stories. The plot has to specifically engineered to fit the constriants of the length. With novels, any story can fit. A focused story is required for shorter formats. That’s everything I have to say. Feel free to add more in the comments below.
Coverphoto credit: Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash