Dr Sally O’Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, offers further insight on how to get your creative writing juices flowing if you are taking part in our #OU50words flash fiction competition…
Writing flash fiction is useful for anyone wanting to develop as a fiction writer. It enables you to produce short pieces of finished work relatively quickly, it can help develop a regular writing habit and develop your confidence and skill in using language. Once you have started writing regularly, see where this goes.
You might try building up from a 50 word story to a longer short story, working up to writing short piece of 500-1000 words. Or you might find that flash fiction helps you get a fix on your ideas for a much longer piece of writing: perhaps these are scenes or moments that you can connect up into a continuous narrative. And writing flash fiction will help you use language precisely. Even if you go on to write an 80,000 word novel, you will need to summarise it succinctly when you are talking about it to readers or potential publishers – being able to condense your writing is a valuable skill.
1. Developing ideas
Using a few words to tell a story is a great discipline: see how much tension you can build and how much information you can get across to your reader. You might experiment with ideas in different genres: can you write a ghost story or a love story in 50 words? How do you make such stories stand out? Ideas generate ideas, and the more time you spend creating flash fiction stories, the more ideas will come to you. Keep a list of ideas and add to it – these might be no more than five or six words to start with. Unexpected juxtapositions are useful, mix and match elements that you would not expect to see together, an underwater ghost story, a romance in a morgue.
2. Using vivid language
Try to convey your scene with one or two sharp images. Think of your story as a series of snapshots or screen grabs. This is a great discipline for writing longer pieces. You will have more latitude in terms of using description to build a scene, but the ability to use a few words to convey a picture is invaluable in all forms of fiction writing. Don’t forget to use sensory detail, including not only information about how things look, but how they sound, smell, touch and taste.
3. Letting the reader do the work
A common issue for many new (and not so new) writers is telling the reader too much. Sometimes we feel as if we need to make a point very clearly, or include reminders about a character’s state of mind or motivation. But in fact, readers are very good at picking up on clues, and enjoy working things out for themselves. (One reason, perhaps, for the enduring popularity of crime stories.)
Flash fiction denies the writer this luxury – there is no space to include superfluous information, and the gaps in short short fiction can be as compelling as the words. Transferring this technique to longer form fiction will help you make your stories gripping and engrossing. The oft-quoted mantra is ‘show don’t tell’: create scenes your readers can experience for themselves.
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).