Today is the launch of this years ’50 Words’ flash fiction competition, and for the next eight days we’ll be sharing a daily image on our social media channels using #OU50words and asking for your inspired 50-word stories in reply. Writing flash fiction can be harder than you think. How do you convey something meaningful in 50 words? How do you make your work stand out? Here’s some advice from Dr Sally O’Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing.
Tell a story!
Sounds obvious, but don’t let that 50 word limit fool you into thinking you can get away with a simple description of an unchanging scene. In any story, of any length, something has to change. It can be something very tiny and apparently insignificant, but see what can shift in those few words.
Cut to the chase
There is no room for wastage in flash fiction. So go right to heart of the action, and start with a dramatic image or event. It could be a physical event, like an accident or a meeting, or it could be a sudden thought or realisation that has struck your narrator. During the editing process even of such a small number of words, you might find that you didn’t start where you needed to in the first draft, and that your story starts later.
Read your work aloud
The sound and shape of the words you use make a difference – try reading your piece aloud as you shape and edit it. Think about how the words work in relation to each other. Keep your language simple and direct – this is a form that works best when you hone it back, and plain uncluttered language will have the most impact. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, strong nouns and active verbs work well.
Don’t use your first idea
Play around with different approaches. When you find a strong idea, it will resonate in a few words, and will be simple and succinct. So spend some time on this. Read other flash fiction stories and develop your taste in the form. Which ones do you prefer and why? Brainstorm a few ideas each morning for a week. Then go over your list and decide which is the most original or powerful. Surprise the reader, do something unexpected. Set your story in weird place, think of the 10 worst things your character might do.
You have spent time finding a strong idea, so it makes sense to spend time on the writing itself. Early versions of your draft may seem to be fine, but the more you edit, the more improvements and refinements you will be able to make. The more condensed and precise your language, the more these 50 words will be able to contain. When you think you have the right 50 words, set your story aside for a day or two and then come back to it.
Your last line should stand out and linger in the mind. As with poetry, flash fiction is most powerful when it leaves a trace memory with the reader. One way to make this happen is to keep the story open, rather than closing it down with a twist or a gimmick. You might want to leave the reader with an image or a sense of loss or wonder. You might want to evoke the exact way that you or your character felt at a certain moment.
Sally O’Reilly is the author of three novels: The Best Possible Taste and You Spin Me Round, (Penguin, 2004 and 2007) and Dark Aemilia (Myriad Editions/Picador US, 2014). Her short stories have been published in South Africa, Australia and the UK and she has been shortlisted for the Ian St James and Cosmopolitan short story prize. She has also written a guide for writers: How to Be a Writer: the definitive guide to getting published and making a living from writing (Piatkus, 2011).