Elements of Great Flash Fiction: Tips and Tricks

Photo: "Building Blocks" by Myfear on Flickr. Photo used under Creative Commons License.
Photo: “Building Blocks” by Myfear on Flickr. Photo used under Creative Commons License.

In this week’s contest, guest judge Kim McNiel pointed out several areas in which our writers excel. In the process, she named a variety of elements that combine to make a truly winning work of flash fiction.

Character names

Often just thrown on the page because it’s the first name that came to mind, names can have a dramatic effect on how we envision the character. They hint at an origin or a tradition. When used intentionally, they can give clues to the character’s personality.

If Katie is walking down the country lane you probably envision someone relatively young in a frilly dress surrounded by wildflowers. Compare this to the image you get when you read that it is Edith walking down the country lane. Poor Edith is automatically older, her dress becomes more ‘countrified’, and the plants around her are something closer to dried weeds or golden stalks.

Your reader may actually know a Katie or an Edith that completely blows these stereotypes out of the water, but generally speaking, most names carry some kind of image for the reader. Manipulate these to add greater meaning to your story without adding more words.


Dialogue is your friend. It is an easy way to avoid excessive description and again can provide layers of insight into your characters without adding additional length. Don’t get me wrong, description is not always bad, but there is a strong tendency to allow the description to tell the story instead of allowing the reader to experience it along with your characters.

Telling the story through dialogue confines the action to just what the characters are saying to each other, thus limiting the story to something that is occurring in the character’s present moment. It isn’t a foolproof tool to avoid telling, but it is a strong aid.

By adding a bit of slang, a speech impediment, an accent, or other verbally-oriented traits to the dialogue, you can bring on even more layers of meaning. Does your character speak with a strong Southern drawl? Maybe the twist at the end is that he isn’t actually as redneck as the stereotype might suggest.

A few pitfalls to consider when working with dialog are the use of tags and the overuse of slang.

Tags are the little bits of information that allow the reader to know who is talking. Too many interrupts the flow of the conversation and the reader’s interest. Too few and the reader becomes frustrated with trying to follow the exchange. This is also the place where those pesky adverbs tend to sneak in. If he is saying something forcefully, find a better way to let that emotion come through than writing “he said forcefully.”

Slang, by its very nature, is a dangerous area. A couple of characters standing around discussing their need to acquire bread might be confusing to a reader who didn’t grow up in the 60s to understand it is a reference to money. To blow off in America means you failed to meet an obligation, but in England it means you have passed gas. Unless you are very careful to make the meaning clear through more standard forms of expression, your slang word may lead to a very confused and unsatisfied audience.

There’s a lot to be said on these topics, so don’t be surprised if you see them resurface. In the meantime, what other elements do you think contribute to a great piece of flash fiction? What do you struggle with?

Wendy Strain

My entire life is full of writing and creativity. Whether copywriting for exciting new projects, crafting web content for creative companies, ghostwriting, editing, coaching, or exploring my own imagination as a fiction writer, I am constantly engaged in stretching boundaries and exploring possibilities.

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