Flash fiction should matter

Note:  Today we have a guest post on flash fiction from Simon Larter.  Some of Simon's flash pieces include Twister (published at Per Contra) and Rise, Lazarus (Flashquake).  In this article, Simon shares about a piece  that didn't make it to publication and draws some principles about what makes good flash fiction.

Thus far in my writing career (such as it is), I’ve specialized in flash fiction. That’s mainly due to my fiction writing class in my last term of college, which focused almost exclusively on flash, but I’ve found I enjoy the form. It allows me to explore small, yet important ideas without the burden of a minimum word count or expectations of elaboration.

Despite the low word count, though, flash fiction has to tell an interesting story, or it won’t work. The same strictures that apply to novels apply to flash, they’re just distilled and amplified due to the brevity of the form. Characters have to be immediately interesting, or at least identifiable; situations must be compelling, or at least evocative.

With those things in mind, why don’t we look at a bit of flash fiction? Hop on over to my blog to read the piece I’ll be examining. (I’m posting it there because I don’t want to clutter Livia’s blog with an epic-length post.)

(Waits. Whistles. Taps toes.)

You’re back? Good. Thanks for reading that.

So did you see anything wrong with it? On the surface, it’s not so bad. I feel that the prose is fairly decent, and I like a couple of turns of phrase in it—I kind of dig the “porcelain crescent” bit, and I’m quite pleased with the flashback scene in the bathroom. The editors at Flash Fiction Online thought it was all right too: this piece made it through the first round of editorial review, which places it in the top 20% of all submissions in a given time period. So again, is there anything wrong with it?

Needless to say (since you haven’t seen this piece in FFO recently), Cake and Coffee didn’t get accepted. In the second round of editorial reviews, I got some pretty crushing feedback. Here’s one of the comments:

The writing was good up to the ending. Even if I could figure out what angered Jean so violently, the story would still have no plot.

And that was the best of it. “Totally miserable and unappealing MC,” was another comment. Yeah. Not so good.

But what can that teach us about what good flash fiction should be? For my part, I think it tells us that something significant must happen to the characters. You might say that allowing someone to be scalded and possibly disfigured is significant, and in real life, yes, it is. But in fiction, being burned by hot coffee is only significant if it produces a change in the characters. Feeling “small and cruel inside” is not a significant change. And have I really set Jean up as capable of this kind of cruelty? I don’t think I have. It seems almost arbitrary, and at the very least, it’s a disproportionate response to the loss of a slice of cake, of all things.

Another problem—and all the rejecting editors noted this—is that I have a seriously unlikable main character. I might have been able to get away with that in a novel, where there’s potential for development and change. But in flash? There’s not much room for that. My main POV character was neither interesting nor sympathetic, and that brings the whole story down.

I hesitate to draw any concrete conclusions about flash fiction from this one example, since with all art, there are exceptions to every rule. A more talented writer might have been able to easily surmount the difficulties I’ve presented. Still, in my own fiction, I want to be able to learn from what I perceive are my mistakes.

In the end, I feel that Cake and Coffee turned out as a glorified anecdote, and not a particularly pleasant one. Flash fiction should be more than that. I feel it should mean something, express something true, tell an important story. Flash fiction should matter.

Simon is rediscovering writing after a 15 year hiatus, and wondering why he waited so long. He is a husband and father of three whose day job in lightning protection may someday provide a wealth of anecdotes for the next great American novel (although he’s Scottish by birth). Between work, home renovations, and child duty, he still manages to find time to write short stories and flash fiction. He graduated from Drexel University with a degree in Civil Engineering.


  1. Thanks for the opportunity, Livia. I had fun with it!

  2. Thanks for writing such an enlightening post about what many would choose not to talk about; the one that didn't make the cut. Some great advice in it, thank you. I'm relatively new to writing flash fiction (I usually write short stories around 2,500 or novels) so any and all advice about flash is greatly appreciated!

  3. Very informative post! Am member of the writing community that posts flash fiction every Friday (#fridayflash) so was particularly interested in reading your piece.

    Yes, there was plenty of good writing evident in your Cake and Coffee story. I was a little confused by the MC's "violent" outrage, but saw that she knows about her sister's bulimia.

    Figured out there must be plenty of backstory that has made her who she is.

    Interesting to see that the editors thought the MC was not likeable, so wouldn't be a good story for them. Hmm. Whether a MC is likeable or not shouldn't be issue; it's whether one cares about said character.

    Hard to do in flash fiction--since there's not enough time to get to know characters.

    But, thank you for sharing your work with us and helping us learn more about this business of writing!

  4. Thanks for this! I actually just entered a 100 word story into a competition and got second place, so reading about flash fiction and the mind is very, very interesting. I love the angle you are taking on creative writing. It makes me more aware of whats going on in my mind, and in the mind of my readers. Thanks!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  5. Emma:
    Short stories of that length are only a little bit longer than flash fiction, so you're almost there! Glad I could be of some assistance today.

    I don't mind unlikable characters at all. I think, though, that the combination of an unlikable MC with an almost random act of cruelty killed this piece for me (and the editors at FFO). Rereading, do I care about Jean? No. I gave myself no reason to.

    I'm happy to share, though. Thanks for reading!

    Congrats on the 2nd place! That's great. I love very short stories. Every now and then I try to write a story-in-a-sentence, or a story under 100 words. It's always a challenge to invest such brevity with real meaning.

  6. Good analysis! I am learning more about flash fiction every week. One of these days... :)

  7. Haha! Alright, I was right on, baby...I should be an agent. Marvelous analogy, Simon. I really should have you critique my work. Seriously. You're brilliant at this sort of thing. Why aren't you an editor? Oh yes, because you're a writer. And there's that whole lightning rod thing...Zeus and whatnot.

    Livia, excellent blog. I love your take on writing. A scientific approach to an art form...beautiful. I'll have to investigate more closely.

  8. Thanks, Carol! Glad you liked it. And yes, Livia's blog is quite intriguing. But if she asks to look at your brain, even if she says it's for research purposes only, I wouldn't let her. I still haven't decided if that's a real brain she's looking at on the book in the photo up there. (Hey, it could have been painted white. Who knows?)

    Wait. Sorry, Livia, for bringing the silly to your comment section. I do that sometimes...

  9. That brain belongs to the last person who brought silly to my comment section.

  10. I guess I'll spare you this once, since you did just write me a guest post... :-)

  11. With regards to flash fiction, its not style or substance, but the sort of verve and panache to pull off a story within confines.