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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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1.When should I start this story?

There are many, many different and wonderful answers to this question. But one good answer – and a great place to start if you’re beginning with this genre – is a moment after which you (or your character) will never be the same.

This is a fantastic way to ensure we’re selecting a plot that is perfectly primed for change. Perhaps an unexpected pregnancy test came back positive, or we’ve just declared war on planet Zepton, or we discover our wife has been secretly running an activated charcoal MLM out of our garage for the past 18 months.

A perfect example is the first line of our 2019 flash contest winner by Mindy McGinnis, which begins: I sever the first two fingers of my left hand on a Tuesday. Not only is the reader’s interest immediately piqued (“I’m sorry, you did what on a Tuesday?”), but we’re also witnessing a narrator on the brink of one of the most serious changes in her life.

Obviously, not every story needs to begin with losing appendages; quiet change is still change and absolutely worth writing about. But note, too, how McGinnis laser-focuses on her subject from the very beginning: With just 13 words, she has every reader in the palm of her hand, breathlessly waiting to hear what happens next. A good flash submission should do the same, pulling us into the rabbit-hole of your narrative from the very first sentence.


2. Is this an excerpt of a longer work?

If so, hit the brakes.

Publications can and do publish excerpts, of course. But they must be selected with utmost care. If you submit chapter two of your memoir, I will miss all the information that you presented in chapters one and three. If you submit chapter one of a completed novel, there may not be enough rising action and tension to sustain it as a standalone work because your chapter is designed to set up and support chapter two.

Suffice to say, excerpts are a risky business, and if you’re trying to butcher an existing work to meet a publication’s word count guidelines, you might be more successful if you write a new piece from scratch. Or, at the very least, hand it to a friend who’s never read the longer work and ask, “Does this make sense to you?”


3. How many characters am I trying to work with?

Remember our trunk-of-the-car analogy: We aren’t working with McMansions with guest rooms in spades for every character who pops into our imagination. There simply isn’t room for a huge cast. If you find yourself tempted to work with more than a few, short fiction or essay might be more up your alley for this particular narrative.


4. Where is the change in this narrative? Where is the movement?

If you can’t identify it on the page, your reader probably can’t, either. What’s more, you should ensure your change is actually happening in real time on the page. Change that happened long ago doesn’t count as movement in the present.


5. Where is the source of tension in this story?

A good narrative is like a string held taut between writer and reader. Without any source of tension, it’ll fall flat in more ways than one. Happy people doing happy things does not a compelling narrative make.


Originally Published