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A Meaningful Story in Five Hundred Words

The greatest flash fiction is a huge story packed into a tiny space. The words are dense and compacted, the story is small but complete, and it leaves you feeling the characters' actions or wondering how their lives will go on afterwards.

But how can we achieve that?

Think of flash fiction as a tiny, complete world.


Chopping down a five thousand word story and stuffing it into five hundred words is both difficult and dissatisfying. But writing with three hundred words in mind--or five hundred or whatever the word limit, you can arrive at that length more easily.

Checking the wordcount every few sentences can cause you to stop too often and your writing to come more rigid, or the ideas you didn't get down can fly away.

If you write freely with the word limit in mind, you can let the story emerge, and if it goes over the limit you can trim it back, which leads us to the next part, trimming.


In a piece of flash fiction, every word counts. If it can't pull the weight of the story, it's out. When you've reached the end of a draft, go back through it.

Are there long sentences that could be rephrased to have fewer words? Do multiple adjectives describe the same thing? What if you take out an explaining part and leave the reader to work it out for themselves. Does the story still make sense?

Keep going through your story, adjusting and tightening, till it becomes something solid.


The problem with adding scenes to flash fiction is that if you add too many (or simply more than one), you'll spill over the word limit and will have to divide your work into two flash fictions!

That happened to one of my recent flashes when I fleshed out the scenes leading up to a battle until they became too long and I decided to cut the whole thing in half. It worked because the two halves were distinct. Even though all the backstory was at the opening of the first half, I discovered that the second half didn't need it. Instead, it gets straight into the action.

I find it works best in flash fiction to let the action unfold in a single scene. You could have a few scenes and skip months or years in between but they will be more like brief images and impressions than complete scenes with dialogue and action.

If you find your scenes getting too long, try cutting to the main conflict and see what happens.


In flash fiction, there's no room for lengthy character descriptions or back story.

You will have to find ways of characterising people in a few brief details. What do you want your character's most defining qualities to be?

Does he have a quick stride or a habit of resting his hand on his chin?

Does she cut off the burnt edges of her toast?


Try to keep your sentences and paragraphs flexible. Editing to reduce the length forces you to consider how to rearrange sentences to say what you want in fewer words.

According to Nancy Stohlman, "the goal is to keep your writing loose, keep it malleable like a stick of softened butter that can be shaped and then reshaped."

She suggests swapping sentences around and seeing how they fit at different parts of your texts. Does a paragraph near the end work better at the beginning? What if an early part happened later? How do the characters come across differently?

You can make as many versions of your text as you want, so feel free to play.

An Example

Reunification is a great example of a piece of flash fiction that is short but meaningful.

The story opens with concise descriptions comparing a boy to a bird:

"Amelia knew from the beginning that the boy wasn’t hers. His nose was too pointed, his hair too thin; when he turned to the side he resembled a cliff swallow who’d lost his muddy nest. When he cried, Amelia’s ears rang. She could bring no comfort to his pointy shoulders, which shook against her chest during his night terrors."

As Amelia makes discoveries about the boy, the bird imagery reappears:

"His laughter vibrated through the house like the satisfied lilt of a starling, declaring his place in this tree. It tickled the inside of Amelia’s ribcage and sent her into fits of tearful giggles."

While the descriptions are short, they are vivid and help the reader to see that characters.

The story ends with a swift pang of emotion and a lovely realisation.. You can read it in full here:


Are you ready to tackle this month's flash challenges?

Do you have any questions about writing flash? Let me know in the comments.

Happy wordcrafting!

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