If you have not met flash fiction before, you are in for a treat. If you have, here is yet another attempt to define it, to pin down this most slippery of beasts. And because I am a writer, I’ll define it like this:
Imagine standing at the open door of a room where all is in darkness, and you can see nothing. Imagine someone flicking on the lights - to the count of one, two - then plunging the room back into darkness. You didn’t have time to take in much, but you know exactly what room this is, now - a bedroom, an operating theatre, a kitchen, a courtroom. Odds are, you also remember a few things about the room - something about the bed, for example - something out of place? Something odd about that operating theatre... what was that on the floor in the corner? The kitchen - who was that peering back at you from the window? The courtroom - was that a small boy crying in the dock? But this is today - we don’t put small boys on trial? Do we?
A great piece of flash fiction creates a complete world in very few words, draws you in, and makes you complicit. You become the creator too, in partnership, filling in the gaps the writer leaves behind, your brain often adding the reasons, the detail. And because it is, to some extent, ‘yours’, it has a lasting effect. It may be very short - usually under 300 words, or 500 words, sometimes under 1000, sometimes as little as 100 or even 50 - but it packs a punch beyond its weight.
Do not be tricked into thinking a flash has to therefore ignore the craft of fiction. If anything, the fewer words you have to play with, the harder it is to create something strong. But think of an old Oriental painting, a flower, a tree, a horse, made in a few brushstrokes. In a great flash piece, you will find living characters created with those brushstrokes. A setting created thanks to a single wall. A flash of narrative lit up, then extinguished, leaving the reader wondering, but satisfied - because a good flash is never incomplete.
Perhaps the greatest asset for a flash writer is the ability to create character through voice. That skill is well worth exploring, and the best exploration is either through just doing it, or by reading what others do. So - here are some great writers of flash, some well known, others not, or not yet... many are writing colleagues of mine, and I know their work well. Do look them up, do some research of your own, read the wonderful flash journals. A lot can be found online.
And finally - flash is not only an end in itself, the art of flash writing is also a wonderful liberating creative process. I always begin writing workshops with this exercise - so have fun! I call it Flash Cricket - because you have to bowl and field words.
Here is a list of twenty random words. Don’t read them too closely - but cut and paste onto a fresh document, save and close. When you have twenty minutes to spare, make a cuppa or something stronger, and get ready to write. Only when you are ready, open the document, glance at that first word, and start writing, immediately. No planning in advance. And every few sentences, pick up the next word, incorporating that into the flow. Make it happen - make those words fit - it will feel absolutely nuts, but it is only a bit of fun - and you will end up with unplanned, surprising twists and turns, strange connections.
Who knows, maybe a fascinating character will have wandered into the room while you weren’t looking. By the way, you can play this game with other writers easily. Enjoy! And best wishes with all your writing.
Vanessa Gebbie is the author of A Coward's Tale. Follow @vanessagebbie on Twitter, and check each day for fun #StoryGym writing prompts.
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