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Make every word count: An editor’s tips for writing the best flash stories

Here's how to make your short-short fiction and nonfiction stand out in the queue.

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Change, growth, tension, & conflict

Even if we nail the release of information, our work can still suffer from two remaining pacing problems. The first? Tension – or lack thereof.

We know that flash can never contain as much change, growth, or long-building suspense as a larger work. But writers sometimes mistake having less change for having no change.

I know, I know –  why are editors always going on and on about change?

Because our brains are attracted to change.

Change, difference, something out of the ordinary – all of these things make our brains wake up and pay attention to the circumstances at hand.

An example: What does your work-from-home morning routine look like?

I’d imagine it looks much like mine: I get dressed for the day, brush my teeth, let the dogs out, make some coffee, fire up the work laptop…

Yawn-inducing, right? Because my routine is ordinary. It’s common fare. It’s boring, and nothing is worse to a reader than a boring, ordinary, common story we’ve all heard before.

But what if I told you that this morning I went to let the dogs out and noticed a single child’s shoe on my porch?

…And I don’t have children?

…And I don’t have neighbors? 

If this happened to me, you can bet my brain would be firing on all cylinders because this is new. This is extremely out of the ordinary. Something has changed. Suddenly, my mind is sparking with questions, and as a reader, I’d hope your brain is doing the same. We wonder: How did the shoe get there? And more importantly…What is she going to do about it?

These are the good kinds of questions we want readers to ask when they read our work because a curious mind is an engaged mind, and an engaged mind is the kind that will stick with our story from first word to last.

Change begets tension. Tension begets conflict. We generally cannot sustain a narrative without some sort of change or movement, no matter how short the work or subtle the movement.

A work without change often suffers from low stakes, no suspense, and/or no surprise, all of which can bore or disappoint a reader.


The structure cannot hold

Last on our list of timing pitfalls occurs when the author selects a structure that wreaks havoc on a narrative’s pacing. Maybe the writer is besotted with a plot device that jumps back and forth in time in a way that feels chaotic in such a short form. Perhaps they opt to hop from one merry character to another, never giving the reader a chance to settle into one POV before leaping to the next. Sometimes narratives are so laden with backstory that there’s little room for any “now-story,” so we exit the work with a lot of information about a character’s past and very little about their future. It’s much easier to create a sturdy structure when we have a lot of narrative elements to play with. In flash, we’re essentially building a house of cards with a poker hand, so each element must be deployed with utmost precision, or the entire thing will collapse.

But how can an author know when we’ve chosen a faulty structure, or if we’re cramming too much information into a too-tight space, or if we’ve neglected to include a form of change in a submission?

The answer to these questions ends at our beta readers, who can point out all the places where there’s discomfort or discord in our stories. But they cannot and must not begin there. The writer should ultimately learn to spot some of these woes during revision. This learning process starts with mindfulness: Actively looking for weak spots in our work, weighing our choices, and identifying when, why, and how they work.

Here’s a checklist of questions to consider to get you started.


Originally Published