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How to Write Great Flash Fiction: 10 Things You Need to Know

Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright and short-story writer, could be thought of as the "nonofficial" father of modern flash fiction.

In his book review of some of Chekov's lesser known early works entitled The Undiscovered Chekov, George Steiner of The Guardian, explains it like this: [During his] absurdly curtailed, harried existence, Chekhov produced a constellation of plays at least three of which are incomparable and have altered the history of the theatre. Steiner also mentions that in the book, Most of the pieces are of extreme brevity. Some run to a page and a half; others to four or five pages.

While Chekov wrote Brevity is the sister of talent and Hamlet countered with brevity is the soul of wit, great writers understand the talent involved with fewer words. Many will agree that properly planning and writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a book.

Writers agree that writing a short story is more challenging than writing a book
Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash

Perhaps this is the reason flash fiction has recently gained an eager audience and writers seeking to explore the form to flex their writing muscles. If you're looking for a way to sharpen your creative writing skills, there's really no better way to do it than through extreme word count limitations. In a world of Twitter™ and quick peeks at our smartphones several times a day, flash fiction becomes a great way to reach an audience and get them interested in the stories you have to tell. Even better, flash fiction such as mini-sagas, which we'll cover more in depth later in this article, are highly shareable content on social media sites like Instagram™ and Facebook™.

So, if you're convinced flash fiction might be a narrative form you'd enjoy exploring, or just want to get better at it, here are the top ten things you need to know to be able to write great flash fiction:

1. You won't find one single definition of "flash fiction"

Flash fiction has varying definitions, but all of them agree it's a work of fiction—with character and plot development—that is less than 2,000 words. Most commonly, you'll see flash fiction defined as having 1,000 words or less. In other cases, you'll see flash fiction defined specifically for a contest or book project, so don't be confused if you run across a wide scope of defining word counts for it.

2. Flash fiction is a popular, even lucrative format

As a most recent example of flash fiction, Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, students at the University of Chicago, published Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less and rewrote many of the great classics of world literature in flash fiction formatted as 20 tweets or less per story. Beginning with The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and ending with The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the book contains witty, modern summaries written in flash fiction form that offer a highly intellectual and contemporary narrative style.

Twitterature is a popular sub-genre of flash fiction
Photo credit: Amazon.com

3. Know there are sub-genres within flash fiction

Beneath the flash fiction umbrella, you'll even find a list of sub-genres that are all defined by word count. The Internet is a large playground and I've likely missed a few in my research, but these are the main sub-genres I've managed to find:

Six-word story

Exactly as the title implies, a six-word story is one that must be told in six words. Before you write this off as impossible, consider the following, which has been attributed to Hemmingway (although his authorship remains undetermined): For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This is a great example of how a picture can be worth 1,000 words, but the difficulty lies in finding a "picture" that says that much. When a writer does manage to find one, it's unforgettable to the audience reading it, which is part of what makes the six-word story challenge so seductive for writers who up for a challenge.


This is obviously a portmanteau of Twitter and literature. After late 2017, this involved a 280-character maximum. Originally, the maximum was 140 characters. Even Twitterature has several forms, such as retelling a story that has been already written (as in the example I gave you earlier), telling an original story in a single tweet, using dozens or hundreds of Tweets to tell an original story, or even collaboratively writing stories through Tweets among a group of people. The latter can get especially fun to watch (and read).


This form of flash fiction is a short story or lesson that contains exactly 50 words. The title can be up to 15 characters. You'll find these used a lot in business as an opener or closing of a motivational speech, and ideally, each mini-saga should contain plot, character, motivation and theme.

The important thing to keep in mind about a mini-saga is that the great ones read like a parable. A well-written mini-saga should refer to larger stories the audience would recognize, such as a reoccurring trope or universal theme regarding human endurance, suffering, relationships, and purpose. When you're able to connect with your audience on this level, you'll find your writing becomes what is known in marketing circles as viral media. If you're looking for exposure or a way to market your brand identity as a writer, there's really no better way to do it than write mini-sagas that will be attributed to you.

As a side note, whatever you do publish, be sure it is clearly attributed to you as writer. If you have a website, publishing it there will be your copyright protection, and will make it easy for search engines like Google to find you if someone is searching for your mini-saga by title or words.


Aided by websites like drablr.com, a drabble is a fictional story that is exactly 100 words in length whose purpose…is brevity, testing the author's ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in an extremely confined space. There have even been drabble books published, such as The Drabble Project (1988), Drabble II: Double Century (1990), and Drabble Who (1993). As with other sub-genres of flash fiction, this one is defined by a word count limitation that challenges the author to break a story down to its bare-bones effect.

4. Flash fiction is about a moment

You'll find multiple references to writing poetry as you research flash fiction, because the processes are similar. When writing a poem, poets often start with a moment in time that is frozen and recounted in words. In poetry, those words are often few, but dense and teeming with meaning. It is the poet's job to take the audience to that moment through the senses and make them feel as if they were there when it happened. The same holds true for flash fiction.

5. A vignette is similar to flash fiction, with one small difference

A vignette is a type of flash fiction but there is one difference: A vignette would not focus on plot or moving the plot forward in any way. Rather, it offers an impressionistic scene that focuses on one character in one moment. Think of it as a poem—a moment in time observed through the narrative voice.

6. Start at the most important scene

In most flash fiction, especially when it's 100 words or less, it's important to start at the flash point—the climax of the story. The only flash fiction where this wouldn't work would be flash fiction that is a retelling of another story or flash fiction that allows up to 2,000 words. If you have 2,000 words to use, you should have room for some exposition.

7. Use a powerful image

Flash fiction works best when there is a powerful image that tells a story within itself. Think of it as a "loaded image" or a "picture that's worth 1,000 words." A good example is the one used in the six-word story we mentioned earlier—the sight of baby shoes that will never be worn is a powerful one.

Sometimes a picture can be worth 1,000 words
Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

8. Make it emotional

From the mini-sagas told by motivational speakers to the vignettes offering a snapshot of a moment, make your flash fiction emotional if you want it to be memorable and effective in engaging an audience. Since people remember most the things that affect their emotions, appealing to the emotions of your audience will pay off. They'll think deeply about what you've written and apply it to specific moments in their own journeys when reading what you wrote would have helped them make the right choicer—or be less afraid.

9. Leave out adverbs

When the number of words is limited, the rule that applies to most writing certainly applies here, as well: adverbs are not your friend, especially in flash fiction. Leave them out, or better yet let your audience "see" instead of being told about the setting. If you're not sure of how to do that, this article is a great resource.

10. Participate in a community

With opportunities ranging from publishing in a flash fiction publication like Flash Fiction Online to participating in collaborative forums and book projects like those discussed in this article, you'll find many opportunities online to create, share, and learn from flash fiction along with other writers. In addition to the exposure such participation could bring to your writing, you'll enjoy meeting likeminded writers who are drawn to the challenge of crafting flash fiction.

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