How I Learned to Write Good (and Bad) Flash Fiction

Flash fiction can be a great place for new writers to start. It’s a lot easier to perfect a one page story than a 1,000 page epic, after all.

Given that, it should come as no surprise that we get a lot of flash fiction at Belmont Story Review. What is surprising, however, is just how poor some of these stories are. Easily ten percent of our submissions are flash and yet we’ve only ever published one.

So what separates the good flash fiction from those getting a flash rejection?

I don’t have any iron clad rules for you but one general point I’ve learned the hard way is that a good flash fiction story has a point and a bad flash fiction does not. Let me explain.

My first couple published stories (mostly flash) were accepted all in a row. From this I concluded that I must be pretty good at the whole flash thing so I tried to write some more. Unfortunately, the next six months found my inbox stocked with form rejection letters. (Perhaps you’ve had a similar plateau like this in your own writing.)

So what was the problem?

Let me share with you one particularly telling rejection letter that really helped me out and can hopefully help you as well.

This rejection letter is from a flash fiction I wrote several months back about an innocent man framed for murder who becomes the subject of a documentary. He’s eventually freed but the studio making the documentary frames him again so that they can continue making the show.

Here is the letter:

“Excellent story concept–but you TOLD most of it instead of SHOWING it. I know it’s hard to do that in  flash fiction and still keep it at flash length, but for us it’s a must in order to win us over. In its current form, this reads more like a detailed story outline than a full and engaging story.

I could have pasted this note into half the flash fiction stories we rejected: cool idea but a cool idea isn’t enough. Instead of a short story it’s a short summary of a long story.

He gets framed. So what? My story doesn’t have a point.

Compare that to an excellent flash fiction piece: “The Plague” by Ken Liu. I recommend reading it before finishing this post.

This story is stronger than mine for several reasons. The first is that it uses scenes with action and dialogue instead of just summarizing events the way a lot of bad flash fiction does.

In addition, it makes a point about how different societies view each other. This theme gives the story a sense of completeness that mine lacked. An “aboutness” as my publishing professor calls it.

There are different ways to do this, including having a character learn the story’s lesson/theme as part of an arc, illustrating it through their day to day life in a slice-of life piece, or having it become clear through their choices and the consequences (such as in a parable).

Some classic examples of this are “Posiedon” by Franz Kafka and “The House of Asterion” by Jorge Luis Borges.

What are some of your favorite flash fiction pieces, and what advice do you have for other writers on the subject? What would you like me to discuss next? I’d love to hear your answers in the comments.

 

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