How to Write Short Short Stories

Very short stories, also called "short short stories" and "flash fiction" have become very popular.

These stories can be as short as a few paragraphs or even a few lines.

It's like a magic trick, packing a whole story into such a small space. How do you pull this off?

To start with, it's helpful to think about what makes a story a story. Even if your story is extremely short, you want it to feel complete and satisfying.

For a story to feel like a story, something has to change between the beginning and the end.

What could change?

  • The character's situation. For example, at the beginning of the story, is trying to escape a burning building. At the end, he reaches safety.

  • The character's perspective on the situation. For example, at the beginning of the story, the character believes his wife is as happy in their marriage as he is. At the end, he realizes that she is hiding feelings of alienation.

  • The reader's understanding of the situation. For example, the beginning of the story seems to take place at an idyllic vacation resort. At the end, the reader realizes that the resort is haunted and everyone working there is a ghost.

The story takes readers from Point A (the character in the burning building, the character secure in his happy marriage, the character relaxing in a lovely resort) to Point B (the character safe from the fire, the character rethinking his marriage, the discovery that the resort is haunted).

Now, let's talk about how to get all of this done ultra-fast and have it still be satisfying.

Some strategies you can try:

1) Start late in the story.

In an ultra-short story, there isn't time for a lot of introduction. You have to jump right into the action.

In the story about the haunted resort, you probably wouldn't show the character booking his trip, packing his suitcases, dozing on the plane... You might start when he is checking into the hotel, admiring the beautiful lobby and at the same time noticing something a bit odd about the receptionist's behavior...

In the story about the character escaping the burning building, you might start with him crawling down a hallway with flames all around him.

In the story about the character realizing that his marriage is troubled, you might start the moment before this realization.

Consider starting just before the story climax -- the most exciting or pivotal point in the story -- so that you can give it the attention it deserves.

2) Choose the right details.

If you want to create the effect of a detailed picture, but you don't have room for a lot of details, you have to choose your details carefully.

Choose details that suggest a larger picture. If you say mention food-encrusted plates piled on the kitchen counter and a slice of week-old pizza congealing on the kitchen floor -- readers will imagine that the rest of the kitchen is dirty too.

Choose details that create a certain feeling. If you want to give readers a creepy feeling about the haunted resort, you might focus on details that hint that are unnerving or hint that something isn't right -- e.g., the staff don't make eye contact; the flowers in the hotel lobby are all dead; the chandelier casts too many shadows...

3) Stay focused.

What are you trying to accomplish in your story?

What is the central change that occurs between the story's beginning and its end? What feeling do you want to produce in your readers?

In a very short story, there's no space for anything that isn't promoting this goal.

4) Imply more than you show.

You want to give readers a sense of a world that continues outside the frame of the story. You can use a hint or a gesture or a symbol to represent what goes on outside of that frame.

For example, after your character's wife tells him she is unhappy in the marriage, maybe he promises to change, to be more sensitive to her needs. She hesitates for a moment, then rests her head against his shoulder.

The reader doesn't get to see how they fix their relationship -- there isn't room for that in the story. But the wife's gesture suggests that she is willing to try.

In an unhappier version of this story, the wife might respond to the character's promises by quietly leaving the room. That gesture suggests a different path for the couple after the story's end.

5) Remove unnecessary words.

When you revise your story, get the word count down by removing repetitions and any kind of filler. But save this type of editing for after you've finished writing a rough draft.

During the rough draft, you want your ideas and imagination to flow freely. That means switching off your "inner editor".

In fact, you might want to forget about most of the tips on this page until you reach the revision stage!

First get the story onto the page. You'll fix everything later.

The best way to write a great short short story is to write a lot of them!

You're playing the odds. The more short short stories you write, the better your chance of striking gold.

Generate lots of material, and then choose the most promising drafts to revise.

What if you challenged yourself to write a draft of a new short short story every day for a few months? You would only have to dedicate a few minutes a day to the project, and in three months' time, you'd have nearly 100 story drafts to work with!

The other key to getting better at writing these stories is to read them.

There are many online literary journals where you can find exciting examples of short short stories -- and where you can publish your own! Flash Fiction Online and 100 Word Story are two to check out. Poets & Writers Magazine offers a comprehensive database of literary magazines on their website.

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Short Short Stories - Next Steps

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