Short fiction is an art form. As with any story, it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It must make sense and be complete. Most short stories fall in the 1,000- to 4,000-word range, although Writer’s Digest defines short stories as 1,500 to 30,000 words. Stories written using fewer than 1,000 words can be defined as Flash Fiction.
The trick with writing short-form fiction, whether short stories or flash fiction, is to use the most powerful and visceral imagery possible. Short stories are a challenge, flash fiction even more so.
Here’s an example of a flash fiction story I wrote a few years ago.
She watched, frozen, as flames ate the trees on the ridge to her right. The wind gusted, throwing swirling sparks up a hill that was thick with pine, fir, and beetle-kill. The forest fire roared in her ears. The heat made her skin prickle.
Finally, Jaylyn turned and ran as fast as she could toward her pickup, the hot air seared her lungs, making it hard to breathe. Her skin felt tight as she reached the vehicle, threw open the door, fumbled her keys into the ignition, and turned the switch. Stomping the gas pedal, the engine roared and stalled. She cursed.
Turning the key again, the engine roared to life. Jaylyn slammed the gearshift into gear and floored the gas pedal once more. The engine sputtered one more time before the transmission caught, and the truck lurched forward.
All four wheels slipped and slid on the gravel as she fought to control the one-ton pickup careening down the dirt road. Glancing in the rearview mirror, Jaylyn stared in horror at the swirling column that pursued her as she raced away from the conflagration. The fire tornado followed as she strained to keep the truck from swerving off the road.
The track twisted and turned, forcing her to drive slower than she wanted. She knew that if she slowed or slid off the path, the flames would catch her, and her life would be over. She felt the searing wind as the blaze gained and cooked the cab of the truck even more. The seat was hot, the tires soft on the sloppy gravel road.
A harrowing five minutes later, Jaylyn broke free of the fire line, and the tornado disappeared into the distance behind her.
Later, when retelling the tale, she swore she’d seen a grinning face in the swirling flames of the fire wind.
This story is all of 306 words, not including the title. The original was 329 words. I wrote it some years ago for a contest on a writing support website. It did well. After I copied it here, I read it and made some tweaks. I also looked at the text with a critical eye and the intent of seeing how it could be improved.
The thesaurus is my friend. It’s one of the tools I use to improve my prose. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I write something and realize that the word or phrase I’m using is not quite right, but I don’t want to slow down to find what I’m looking for.
Mark Twain put it best: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” I use the thesaurus to improve my vocabulary and find that “right word.” This resource is most especially vital when writing short or flash fiction.
Writing short-form fiction can also help when writing stories. Knowing how to keep the tale limited to just what the reader needs to know, and making the scenes engaging with visual and visceral imagery is what short stories are all about. They are a great way to practice writing tight descriptions and scenes.