For the second straight year, I am editing the Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge. The challenge just entered step 2 (but it’s not too late to join), and here is the column I posted for this phase of the challenge on the CBS site, which includes my advice for writing Flash Fiction.
I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead—Mark Twain
Writing succinctly is hard. You must say what is essential—and only what is essential, remain laser-focused on what you wish to convey, and avoid digressions. You must drill down to the pure essence of writing, and tell your story in its purest, most distilled form. It is a task that writers like Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, and Cicero all lament takes time, often more time that writing a longer piece would. For those who are participating in the Comic Book School Flash Fiction challenge, that time is now.
The drafting step of the current challenge begins today on our message boards for Flash Fiction #2, and first drafts are due in fourteen days. Here are three suggestions for how to approach this particular challenge:
1. Consider writing a One-Twist Story:
When writing flash-fiction you don’t have space for complex plots. Eschew all sub-plots, and focus on a single problem in a single dramatic situation. Build suspense around one question, situation, or antagonist. Try to build toward a logical, but unexpected resolution, and hide this resolution from the reader for as long as possible. If you are successful, the reader should be both surprised and satisfied by your story’s conclusion.
The Twilight Zone is the gold standard for this type of writing. Think of the episode, Time Enough At Last, in which Henry Bemis, a bookish man who wants nothing as much as to read finds himself with all the time in the world, surrounded by books. Unfortunately, his glasses are permanently broken. The powerful ending is built on one twist. All of the characterization focuses on Bemis’ love of books and his frustration with a society that won’t let him read. From the opening scene in which Bemis reads David Copperfield at his job, to the scene where Bemis’ wife setting him up for ridicule by first asking him to read poetry to her and then frustrates these attempts and destroys his book, each scene stays laser-focused on the single aspect of Bemis’ characterization that will be important to the resolution. If Bemis had been a character in a novel or a movie, he would need to be characterized more fully, but in the shorter medium, focus is essential.The single twist ending can also be pulled off in comedic form.
In perhaps the most famous episode of The Honeymooners, the 99,000 Dollar Answer, the seeds that hint at the twist ending are sown throughout the early part of the episode. The writers engage in a classic misdirection framing the story around Ralph Kramden’s appearances on the gameshow, partially to hide those seeds, but there is still only one dramatic situation that leads to a perfect surprise twist ending.
In The Duel, my flash piece for the last anthology, I tried to affect a single twist ending. Reader have told me that were surprised by the ending. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s only 500 words. Read it and see if you’re surprised, then read it again and try to isolate the techniques I use to affect the suspense and hide the ending.
2. Consider putting your own spin on a traditional trope or cliché.
One of the hardest aspects of writing flash fiction for writers who are used to longer form writing is the lack of space for worldbuilding and backstory. When writing flash fiction, you must build a believable world quickly. Why not let the reader do some of the work for you? By using a trope with which the reader is already familiar, a writer can rely on that reader to do the world building for them. If you write what appears to be a classic fairy tale, a traditional horror, or noir crime story, half the work is done for you. The reader already knows where they are and what is supposed to happen.
The same can be said when using a seemingly cliched or trope-y character. Certain character types are supposed to act in certain ways: Prince Charming, the tragic hero, the undead monster, etc. Moreover, setting your story within a cliched trope allows you to subvert that trope to affect your twist ending. Consider Neil Gaiman’s masterful short story, Nicholas Was. (If you have not read it yet, read it before the next sentence. It’s only 100 words; I’ll wait) At the end of the story, Gaiman relies on the reader’s familiarity with the Santa Claus myth to affect his twist ending. The last three words of the story—”Ho, ho ho”—carry so much weight because the audience is already familiar with Santa Claus before reading the story. Gaiman has used something cliched and familiar to create something surprising and original.
In “The Duel,” I combine two common tropes, the duel at high noon from spaghetti westerns and the traditional high-fantasy wizard archetype, to create a new and different world. Because readers are generally familiar with the Western movie archetype, I could quickly establish the setting with details like the old-west saloon, the tumbleweed rolling across the road, and the townsfolk shuttering their windows. Because readers are familiar with the wizard archetype, I do not have to explain an elaborate magical system that allows the wizards to shoot magic from their staffs. The tropes have done that work for me. But, because I mash-up two unfamiliar genres, the story still feels fresh and new.
3. Consider using an unconventional or experimental narrative technique.
Because flash fiction is so short, it affords the writer the opportunity to experiment with form and language. An unconventional storytelling method can set your story apart and grab the reader’s attention. Readers will stick with an unconventional technique longer in shorter-form fiction, and this gives the flash fiction writer freedom to try out new things.
In her famous short story, The Birthday Party by Katherine Brush uses multiple point of view shifts—including the dreaded second person—to affect the dramatic distance of the reader to the story. In “The Duel,” I use present-tense narration to create immediacy and build suspense. These techniques work better in short form writing than in long form writing. They make the reader uncomfortable, which has the contradictory affect of hooking them in the short term (hmm, this is new and interesting, I’ll give it a shot) and alienating them in the long term (This is just weird/difficult; I don’t want to put in the work to deal with it).
Flash fiction offers you the opportunity to experiment with unconventional techniques and forms without alienating the reader. Take advantage of that opportunity and be creative. Surprise yourself by writing in an unfamiliar way, and you will be sure to surprise your reader.
The drafting phase is the perfect time to experiment with these unconventional narrative techniques. If you write your draft in, say second person, and you don’t like it, it is easy to revise your narrative perspective in future drafts.
There are, of course, many more ways to approach Flash Fiction—many more than I have space for here—and I encourage you experiment with them all. If, however, you are having trouble getting started with the challenge—or if this is the first time you are attempting to write flash fiction—I hope you find these suggestions helpful.
As always, I look forward to seeing your creations, and I will see you on the message boards for Flash Fiction: Step #2.
How to Participate
Register for the challenge, review the creative prompt, and start brainstorming on the boards.
We hope you will take on the flash fiction challenge. We’ll see you on the boards…and in The Time Inn.
Questions? Contact our editor A.A. Rubin on the Flash Fiction Forum.
This article first appeared on the Comic Book School page. Comic Book School runs the flash fiction challenge.