Flash Nonfiction: Learn to Write (Powerful) Teeny-Tiny True Stories – Workshop Notes
Thank you to LitFest Alberta for inviting us to host a Third Verb workshop as a part Edmonton’s nonfiction festival. The workshop was sold out (a huge thank you to those that attended!), so we thought we would share some of our notes here for those that may have missed out. For those that were in attendance, if you scroll down, you’ll find an extra writing exercise and information about submitting to our six-word story contest.
What is flash writing?
Sometimes called micro fiction or micro non-fiction, sudden fiction or sudden non-fiction, or even short-short fiction or short-short non-fiction, this popular form is brief but full. Generally, these terms refer to stories that are between 50 and 1000 words.
But, as we discussed in the workshop, a full story can be written in as few as six words (and, as one participant suggested during the workshop, maybe even one word).
A strong piece of flash writing should not read like an excerpt from a longer work. Flash pieces are not simply opening paragraphs to something much longer or central scenes from a book. Instead, flash pieces should be full stories on their own. Kelly Sundberg, the managing editor of Brevity, describes the strong flash writing like this: “It erupts, leaves the reader a little breathless, and captures an image or idea in a blink.”
The six-word story
Hemingway’s well-known six-word story proves that with exact language, deliberate punctuation, and the power of what we might term ‘literary compression,’ we don’t need pages or even paragraphs to form a narrative. A short, short work can open up a world for the reader.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn. – Hemingway (…allegedly)
All those pages in the fire. – Janet Burroway
Flash can be powerful and lasting
So, while the story is over in a flash, the work that goes into the creation of the story itself is (usually) not.
And, importantly—like all strong literary fiction or creative non-fiction—the story should linger with the reader long after they are finished reading in the way your eyes can still trace a bolt of lightning in the dark sky even after the flash has faded. It’s okay to make your reader squint into the darkness; the flash fiction or non-fiction form asks your reader to do some of the work to make meaning, and you can trust that a careful reader will be able to do so.
Whether it’s a six-paragraph story, a six-sentence story, or a six-word story, the flash form can be powerful and lasting.
Reading widely in the form will show you what is possible
In the workshop today, we examined two examples of flash non-fiction (both available in full online).
The first example that we read and discussed was Brenda Miller’s 290-word flash piece titled “Swerve” published in Brevity. We then read and discussed Chelsea Biondolillo’s 102-word piece “Raccoon, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Ring-necked Pheasant, Fox” published as a part of Guernica’s PEN Flash Series.
Interestingly, both stories are written as apologies. “Swerve” is image-focused (a stray piece of lumber on the highway), and Biondolillo’s story is more of an interrogation of the self through descriptions of the natural world. Both pieces privilege precise language, and both do what good flash can do: move us away from the specific and concrete toward the more universal (i.e. the greater truth).
We briefly discussed the importance of punctuation for pacing—“Swerve” provides a notable example of how pacing (in this case, so fast-paced that it leaves you breathless) can work alongside the content to make meaning.
If you’re interested in reading more flash stories, it’s well-worth studying classic examples like Anton Chekov’s “The Student” and William Carlos William’s “The Use of Force.”
Flash writing (be it fiction or creative non-fiction) offers a lot of possibility. There are few hard and fast rules governing the form, which makes it exciting to explore.
Just because it’s short, does not mean it’s quick to write. Draft. Draft. Draft.
While the story is over in a flash, the work that goes into the creation of the story itself is (usually) not. Strong flash stories are powerful and lasting.
And, importantly—like all strong literary fiction or creative non-fiction—the story should linger with the reader long after they are finished reading in the way your eyes can still trace a bolt of lightning in the dark sky even after the flash has faded. That’s the goal.
Continuing with that metaphor: It’s okay to make your reader squint into the darkness; the flash fiction or non-fiction form asks your reader to do some of the work to make meaning, and you can trust that a careful reader will be able to do so.
2. ASK: DOES ____ ADD VALUE?
Practicing writing flash will only lend itself to strengthening your writing elsewhere (short stories and novels) because you have to pay such close attention to language and punctuation and really ask: Does ____ add value? (E.g. Does this word add value? This phrase? This sentence? This paragraph?)
Watch for reductant details. (For instance, if you’re trying to situate your reader in winter in Edmonton, likely only one ‘wintery’ detail (perhaps a snowbank or snow-rutted streets) is likely necessary.)
3. FIND A PLACE TO DIVE DOWN
In this form, that place to dive down is often at or near the end of the story. That dive below the surface brings us elsewhere (toward that more universal truth).
Consider how both of the examples “Swerve” and “Raccoon, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Ring-necked Pheasant, Fox” open up at the end.
4. CAREFULLY CONSIDER ENTRY AND EXIT POINTS
ENTRY – In a regular short story, you have time to get where you are going. In a flash story, you need to arrive right away.
There’s not a lot of time to develop setting (often, as mentioned above, one clear cue is needed) or to work your way into the topic (avoid, for instance, description for description’s sake). The first sentence should thrust the reader right into the story; it is worth noting that this may not be the case in the first draft, but you can keep revising until you get there. That first sentence should be immediate and it should be a hook that compels the reader to keep reading.
There’s also not a lot of time to characterize or introduce a cast of characters. Often we can draw on existing archetypes: mother, brother, husband, daughter… One or two strong details can be revealing.
EXIT – Often upon our exit, we will do that deep dive down. We want to avoid tying things up too neatly (in the same way we want to avoid doing this in a short story). We don’t want the story to live and die on the page; instead, we want the meaning to linger with the reader long after they are finished reading. We want the story to open up… to ask questions… to make a reader think and to feel.
5. INCLUDE CONCRETE, SIGNIFICANT DETAILS
For flash non-fiction, this is particularly important. Concrete details help to establish the truth of the story.
There is no room for description for description’s sake in this form. Everything that remains on the page when you are done drafting, must do some work in the story. That work may be in the form of showing conflict, situating the reader in time and place, revealing something about character, pushing the narrative forward… etc.
FLASH EXERCISE 1
In the workshop, we took 15 minutes to respond to a prompt. There were four to choose from, though participants were encouraged to write about their own “stray piece of lumber” if they had an image in mind.
Supplied writing prompts
- Write an apology.
- Write a thank you.
- Choose an object you’ve had since childhood. Write a story around it.
- Write a story about a first. E.g. love, day of school, child, date, loss… etc.
FLASH EXERCISE 2
Whether you’re new to the form, or you’re experienced and looking for a prompt to get started on a new story, this generative exercise may prove useful:
In flash writing, we don’t have time to characterize the way that we would in a novel or a short story. Including archetypal characters (e.g. mother, stranger, husband, teacher… etc.) or archetypal relationships (e.g. student and teacher, mother and son, etc.) allows the writer to avoid taking up space characterizing. These identities and relationships have emotional weight to them and we can draw on that. It may also be interesting to invert traditional relationships and play with readers’ expectations.
Incorporate an archetypal character or archetypical relationship in a flash story. Start small (six words), expand a little (one sentence), and continue to build (six sentences). You may want to try this exercise in reverse—start long and go short!
Revise. Revise. Revise.
After drafting a flash story, we went over some questions we might ask during the revision process.
— Do you meander at the beginning?
— Do you have a strong hook?
— Do you dive down? (Or can you identify a place to dive down?)
— Does your story tie things up too neatly at the end?
— Are you working to build or layer in meaning? Can you do so in the next draft?
— Consider your title. Do you have one? Does it add value? Come up with an alternative.
If possible, find a few early readers of your work. Careful readers may help you to solve problems in a draft (before you have things set in stone and may be reluctant to make any significant changes)—this is one reason why workshopping is so useful!
Circling back to the six-word story
We circled back to the six-word story at the end of the workshop. Participants were encouraged to whittle their flash story down to a six-word story. Why? Often our stories can live much more cheaply than we imagine. Also, this is a useful technique to get to the heart of our stories. We may go back to our drafts with a new perspective.
If you attended our LitFest Teeny-Tiny True Stories workshop, remember to tweet us your six-word story (using the hashtag #ThirdVerb) or share it on our Facebook page. All those who share by Tuesday, October 24, at 9:00 p.m., will be entered to win a free spot in our scene writing workshop (taking place March 2 at Union Bank Inn).
Happy writing! We hope to see those of you interested in self-publishing at S.G. Wong’s Third Verb workshop on November 2 at Union Bank Inn! REGISTER HERE.