Flash Fiction Writing Exercises

   Posted by: craig   in Writing

Flash Fiction, Defined

Flash fiction is extremely short fiction. Two common forms are 200-words-or-less and 50-words-exactly. In both cases, the length of the title does not count, but keep it reasonable. Writing flash fiction can be satisfying in and of itself, but I find it’s particularly useful as an exercise in simplicity with lessons to teach writers of longer forms.

Simplicity in Word Choice

The primary lesson that flash fiction writing teaches is simplicity in word choice. When every word counts, it’s important to make them perform double duty, or even triple duty. Words convey emotion. They convey perspective. They add flavor.
  • The magician showed us his empty palm.
Changing the word magician in that sentence to a nearly-synonymous alternative can greatly affect how the entire sentence is interpreted. For example, changing magician to mind-reader changes the meaning from “See? There’s nothing up my sleeve,” to “Quiet! I’m concentrating.” Changing magician to medicine man or wizard changes the setting from a Victorian stage to an Indian reservation or a medieval castle — without actually having to say so.

Simplicity in Plot Development

The plot in regular form fiction usually begins with establishing a premise (a hook to draw the reader in), followed by plot development(s) that eventually reach a climax, followed by a resolution. The resolution may or may not be a twist. The plot developments may or may not be twists. Sometimes the initial premise requires development of its own, although it’s usually considered a mistake to delay the hook. In flash fiction, especially 50-word fiction, there’s little time for developments. The premise leads directly to a (twist) ending, perhaps with one minor development in between.

Deliberate Practice

Flash fiction is also a good basis for applying the notion of deliberate practice. That’s where one performs a simple exercise over and over again, but each time focusing on a different aspect of the skillset needed for that exercise. Computer programmers, for example, use deliberate practice by solving the same coding problem over and over, but using different programming algorithms, applying different language tools, or adhering to different constraints. So, in our case of writing flash fiction, we might try telling the same story over and over again in different ways. For example, an author who is used to writing stories in the third person, might try it again in the first person. A male author might try writing in a female voice. What if the tale was told from the perspective of a secondary character? How about a pass that’s 100% dialog — or one that has no dialog at all? How about a pass that’s as plainspoken as possible — or the opposite, a pass that’s exceptionally flowery?

Feedback Mechanism

Writing flash fiction also has the benefit of producing bite-sized chunks of fiction that are easy to discuss and critique. When joining a new writer’s circle, it might be advantageous to set aside your great American novel at first and whip up some flash fiction instead. Use it as a sandbox to hone specific skills and then apply those skills towards your novel before seeking critiques of the novel itself.

The Flash Fiction Process

So, exactly how does one go about writing flash fiction? Where do the stories come from? The first thing to realize is that flash fiction written as an exercise need not be especially remarkable. It doesn’t have to be pithy or profound. It doesn’t even need to be a good story, just an ordinary story — like relating to one’s spouse over dinner what happened during the day at the office. Then, as far as inspiration for a starting point goes, I know of two story-generating formulas that might help, as follows:

Story-Generation Formula #1

Before you can write a piece of flash fiction, or any story for that matter, you’ll need a character, or two, and a plot premise. David Lee Summers, author of a dozen vampire and steampunk novels, including Owl Dance, gives one formula that works if you already have an inkling of an idea, or at least a genre/sub-genre in mind.
  1. Start with a character who has a problem.
  2. Describe how the character attempts to resolve the problem.
  3. What is the result? Does it work? Does it backfire? Does it reveal a second problem? Does a second character intervene?
  4. Bring it to a conclusion (or leave it in a cliffhanger).

Story-Generation Formula #2

On the other hand, if you, like me, suffer from complete writer’s block whenever you stare at a blank piece of paper (a.k.a. the blank-page syndrome), then the following formula might work better. I came up with it by harking back to the Mad Libs that my fourth grade teacher loved to fill out. Simply get out a set of D&D dice (or visit https://www.wizards.com/dnd/dice/dice.htm) and randomly pick one entry from each list below. Use what you get as the foundation to build a story, but don’t feel too confined. The point it to inspire, not to constrain. The main character is:
  1. an acrobat/clown/entertainer
  2. an archaeologist/paleontologist/geologist
  3. an assassin
  4. a botanist/zoologist
  5. a bounty hunter/tracker
  6. a cattle rustler
  7. a clergyman/nun
  8. a con artist/pickpocket
  9. a detective/inspector
  10. a doctor/veterinarian
  11. an explorer/adventurer
  12. a farmer/rancher
  13. a forest ranger
  14. a gold/silver/copper miner
  15. a gourmet chef
  16. a gunslinger
  17. a horse trainer
  18. a lawyer/judge
  19. a librarian/archivist
  20. a magician
  21. a military leader
  22. a millionaire
  23. a minister/aristocrat
  24. a monster or a monster hunter
  25. a mountaineer
  26. a newspaper reporter/photographer
  27. a painter/songwriter/artist/poet
  28. a pharmacist/chemist
  29. a pilot/navigator
  30. a pirate
  31. a political activist/suffragette
  32. a politician/statesman
  33. a professor/schoolteacher
  34. a railroad conductor
  35. a scientist/engineer
  36. a sharpshooter/bombardier
  37. a sheriff/lawman
  38. a shipwreck victim
  39. a snake oil salesman/sideshow barker
  40. a stowaway
  41. a student/cadet
  42. a suspect/prisoner
  43. a tinker/inventor
  44. a torturer/executioner
The secondary character is:
  1. a bodyguard/door man
  2. a butler/personal assistant
  3. a competitor
  4. a child/young apprentice
  5. a mentor/senior partner
  6. a nemesis/sworn enemy
  7. a sidekick/junior partner
  8. a (freed) slave/indentured servant
  9. a spouse/love interest
  10. a witness/bystander/victim
  11. along involuntarily
  12. crazy/chaotic
  13. fastidious/overly neat/overly deliberate/slow
  14. overly moral or overly ethical
  15. unreasonable/a pompous ass
Their starting point is:
  1. in a caravan/wagon train/merchant fleet
  2. in a house of worship
  3. on a deserted island
  4. in a dirigible/balloon
  5. in a general store
  6. in a hospital/operating room/animal clinic
  7. in a large city
  8. in a small town
  9. in a frontier town
  10. in a storeroom/armory
  11. at Town Hall
  12. at an academy/university
  13. at an ambush point
  14. at an excavation site
  15. in a courtroom/chambers
  16. in a cubbyhole/hideaway/panic room
  17. in a detective agency/squad room
  18. in a fort/castle/barracks/high ground
  19. in a laboratory
  20. in a library/archive
  21. in a machine shop
  22. in a mining town/ghost town
  23. in a prison/jail/cage/dungeon
  24. in a studio
  25. in a pharmacy/chemist/apothecary shop
  26. on a battlefield/shooting range
  27. on a beach/riverbank
  28. on a mountain/hilltop/cabin/chalet
  29. on a pirate ship/pirate island
  30. on a ranch/farm
  31. on a steamship/private yacht/in port
  32. on a theater stage
  33. in a circus ring/sideshow
  34. on board a train/at a train station
  35. on safari/in a jungle/rain forest
  36. in a primitive village
Their goal is:
  1. a quest/treasure hunt
  2. fame/honor/glory
  3. to be rid of each other
  4. to bring justice/avenge a wrong
  5. to cause trouble/stir things up/create anarchy
  6. to save the day
  7. to save themselves/reach safety
  8. understanding/enlightenment
The plot twist is:
  1. the story is not real/a dream/a movie set/an hallucination
  2. an anachronism/a time-traveling anomaly
  3. the character(s) are not whom they seem (shape shifter/apparitions)
  4. it’s only practice/a simulation
  5. it was all done on a dare
  6. there’s an inobvious cause
  7. there’s an unexpected third party
  8. it’s all just illusion/smoke and mirrors
  9. the secret sauce is revealed
  10. there are skeletons in the closet
  11. a third party is in control (mind control/extortion)
  12. they took a wrong turn
  13. it’s all a con/bait and switch
  14. there’s a role reversal
  15. technology goes awry
  16. there’s a double cross/a double agent
  17. a string of bad luck
  18. someone pushes the boundaries
  19. there’s a change in the rules
  20. someone violates protocol
  21. a witty observation/a moral to the story
  22. a pun/a play on words

Example #1

The main character is a suspect/prisoner.
The secondary character is a witness/bystander/victim.
Their starting point is in a hospital/
        operating room/animal clinic.
Their goal is to save the day.
The plot twist is they took a wrong turn.
As I mulled over this random combination, I realized that “prisoner” plus “wrong turn” equals “mistaken identity.” That lead me to this story:
Undone By GreedThe prisoner struggled frantically as the sheriff held him down. “It wasn’t me! You got the wrong man! Let me go! Life or death…” The ether-soaked rag that Doc Higgins held to the man’s nose finally worked.“You can let go now, Sheriff. He’ll be out for a while. And, regardless of guilt or innocence, that bullet still has to come out.” The sheriff turned his attention to the one other man in the room. “What about it Clyde? Did you see that man robbing the train, or not?” Clyde’s arm was in a sling, but he was only dying of boredom, not pain. “Well, maybe he was a passenger who fought off the robbers. It happened fast.” Meanwhile at a campfire outside of town, “This ain’t no gold bullion! It’s just a bunch of little glass bottles. Your friend lied to us. ‘Worth it’s weight in gold’ huh? Ha!” The leader of the robbery gang threw one of the vials into the fire. The glass broke and the contents boiled away in a green puff. None of the robbers were literate, so all 14 of the remaining vials followed it into the fire, despite clearly being labeled “Zombie Plague Vaccine. Handle With Care.”
200 words, not counting the title. It ain’t no Moby Dick, but I’ll be happy to use it as a basis for further experimentation and feedback.

Example #2

The main character is a millionaire.
The secondary character is overly moral or
        overly ethical.
Their starting point is in an apothecary shop.
Their goal is to bring justice/revenge.
The plot twist is it's all just illusion/
        smoke and mirrors.
For this one, as you’ll see, I did not literally begin in an apothecary shop, but that line inspired the drug-trial aspect of the story. Also, I completely ignored the suggested twist ending and came up with my own.
The Placebo of JusticeThe imposing stranger in the expensive suit looked around to make sure no one was listening in. “I’ll donate twenty grand towards your research grant now and another thirty when Quinn’s dead.” The researcher gulped. “I can’t. It’s unethical.” The wealthy man leaned in closer. “Listen. That drunken pig killed my daughter. He deserves to die. Besides, it’s not like you were the one who gave him inoperable cancer. That was karma. You just need to make sure Quinn winds up in the control group so that he only gets the placebo, and not the experimental drug. That bastard doesn’t deserve a second chance.” The scientist remained reluctant. “If anyone finds out, my career is over.” But, he continued to consider it. “Anyway, two separate donations will certainly look suspicious.” The millionaire smiled, knowing he had won. “Fine. Fine. Fifty grand all at once. I’ll messenger a check over to the school in the morning.” A week later the headline read, “20 Test Subjects Dead by Experimental Drug Overdose.” There was an infographic with a stack of clipboard charts. The caption said, “Only those in the control group survived.” The millionaire was furious. Fuck! So much for doubling down on karma.
200 words, not counting the title.

Example #3

The main character is a scientist/engineer.
The secondary character is a butler/
        personal assistant.
Their starting point is in a cubbyhole/
        hideaway/panic room.
Their goal is a quest/treasure hunt.
The plot twist is an anachronism/a
        time-traveling anomaly.
Again, I riffed on time-travel but not to use as a plot twist. This one doesn’t really have a twist, just a moral to the story.
Time Enough to ReflectThe scientist stared at his pocket watch. “3, 2, 1, …” A faint boom reverberated. “Now!” He and his assistant, Herbert, bolted from their hiding place. The boom was supposed to herald the return of a prototype time jumper, but it was nowhere in sight. Instead, the table where it once sat had a two-foot diameter hole. The scientist observed, “I expected a less violent reaction when the reappearing device displaced the existing air, but it could’ve been worse.” Herb nodded. “But where’s the prototype?” “When it fell through the table the jolt must have triggered the on-switch. It jumped again.” “Uh, oh. Next time it’ll crater the floor and repeat. At this rate, it’ll dig a hole to China.” “A bit dramatic, Herb, but point taken.” “I don’t see how we can stop it, sir.” After a moment, the scientist sighed. “We’ll have to shoot it. Go find a gun.” The first shot missed wide. The second shot was late. The third bullet jumped with the device, hitting home an hour later when they reappeared. “Sorry, Professor. Next time be sure the on-switch…” “There won’t be a next time, Mr. Wells. This already proves that time travel is too dangerous.”
197 words (counting numbers as words), not counting the title.

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