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This is the first post about some of the sessions I attended at Winchester Writers’ Conference, 2012. These posts are based on my own notes, and while I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, I do not intend them to be comprehensive summaries of everything that was said – just the key points.

One of the best sessions I went to at Winchester Writers’ Conference was John Gilbey speaking on flash fiction / short-short stories.

John has written for several very well regarded publications here in the UK, like New Scientist and Nature, and he had lots of great advice to share on the art of writing very short stories.

Here’s what he said:

Why Write Short-Short Stories?

It’s fun! They’re fast to write (you can complete a short-short story in a single day) and so you can develop your skills quickly.

Think through the story in your head, deciding who, what, and where — and only writing this down once you have a story.

What’s “Short-Short”

Anything under 1,000 words — and occasionally as low as 50 words. A very short story could even be a series of tweets.

What Does a Short-Short Story Need?

It’s the same as any other story, but in minature. You need all the usual elements:

  • Character (or characters)
  • Location and scenario
  • Plot and plot development
  • Reader engagement
  • And maybe a twist at the end (you shouldn’t have to explain the twist)

Characters

Keep your cast low. Two or three characters is enough, maybe four in a 1,000 word short story.

Each character should be very distinctive. There should be immediate appeal for the reader — or repulsion. You’ve got little time for subtlety … but your characters should still be three-dimensional.

You may want to leave room for a twist.

Location and Scenario

You could choose a familiar setting — an office, a home — or something exotic. It’s often good to pick somewhere you know well. When describing it, remember that small details have a big impact.

The scenario (the starting problem/situation) should be something that you understand and that the reader can relate to. It needs to be realistic and detailed enough to work.

Plot and Plot Development

Keep it simple! You only have room for very few scenes — perhaps three in a 1,000 word story. If the scenario is familiar, much of the development can be implied.

Maintain interest, tension, and intrigue. Keep the reader wondering what will happen next.

Your story needs to have a beginning, middle, and end.

Engagement

Think about these questions:

  • Why should the reader care what happens? Empathy is important.
  • Do you care about the character(s)? If you don’t care, why should the reader?
  • What are you investing of yourself in the story? (Your direct experience, whether that’s happy or not.)

The Twist

Maintain tension and expectation until the last moment. Your twist should leave the reader smiling, laughing — or groaning! It gives your story a unique impact.

Achieving All This

To create a successful short-short story, you need:

  • Ruthless efficiency and self-control
  • A callous disregard for your favourite phrases
  • The opinion of others (is the story complete, does the twist work, etc)
  • Careful, impartial editing — edit as though the story is someone else’s work
  • A cooling-off period: put the story aside and revisit it before sending it to magazines etc

 

Big thanks to John for a great talk! I hope my write-up has given you a flavour of it, and that you might give flash fiction / short-short stories a try in the future.

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