Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thoughts on Flash

Recently I read a crime flash story that reminded me that not everyone knows how to write flash and write it well.  There are a few rules of thumb that work well for crime flash and help make a story more than a setup for a punchline.

1.  You shouldn't use more than two or three characters in a piece that's no more than seven hundred to a thousand words.  Yes, there are exceptions that work but it's a fine line to hold.

2.  Simple names for your characters work best.  When you have multiple characters, please don't give them multiple names like Amy Jo and Billy Bob.  When you have six characters and a dog, each with multiple names, your readers are going to get frustrated trying to keep everyone straight in their head.

3.  Stick with one law enforcement agency.  If your local sheriff can handle the job, let him.  Don't bring in a pair of FBI agents, the State Troopers, and a PI to help him.  Good rule of thumb - One good guy, one bad guy.  Think High Noon not the OK Corral.  And yes, I just mixed Westerns with crime fiction, maybe Die Hard and The Sugarland Express would be better examples.

4.  You've got a great punchline for your story.  Forget it.  Make the story about the punchline not a exercise to get to that great punchline.  If you're writing humor, the punchline is a great device, but most crime stories are grounded in the crime or its aftermath and the joke doesn't always work.  Readers need a satisfying payoff, not an "Oh, God, he didn't just say that, did he?" ending.

5.  Flash is short and fast.  Keep it as simple as you can.  Pick and choose your words carefully.  Use active verbs to keep the story moving forward.  People read flash for a fast, smack you in the face story.  They don't want to get waylaid by purple prose and side trips that don't go anywhere.

Of course there are exceptions to all these rules, but if you're new to flash, stick to the basics.  Keep it as simple and on point as you can.


Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Excellent advice, Sandra. Thanks for sharing it. Makes a lot of sense to me.

sandra seamans said...

My first classes in writing were in a flash critique group, Sean. Nobody puts you on the straight and narrow faster than flash writers, no matter what genre you write in.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Solid reminders, Sandra. I put four characters in a flash story recently and, while I think it worked in this case, I will probably never do it again.

Also, I really really don't like it when stories are only a punchline. That's the mistake I see the most often. I'd rather read a well-written piece with interesting characters and a rich atmosphere than simply be surprised.

Al Tucher said...

You can do a lot in 700 words if you don't try to do too much.

Talk about profound!

sandra seamans said...

The difficulty with too many characters usually rears its ugy head during dialogue, Chris. You have to use a lot of tags and that takes up word count. :)

I think many writers think that all flash can be is a punchline. They can't see how a story can be told in so few words. Plus many flash groups teach you to go for the punchline instead of writing a compelling story. And yes, I've written my share of them.

That's pretty much it, Al.

Thomas Pluck said...

All solid advice. I try to have 3-4 short scenes or one big one. If I need 3, 300 words a pop. 250 if it's 4, and they had better all be utterly necessary. You can't waste a word in flash and you're correct, long names don't help. I've cut out last names to make the count before.

I'm guilty of the punchline, but I tell a story with it. You want to learn flash, read the stories of John Collier. He wrote micro fiction decades ago, and did it well. Finding his work can be a quest, but if you love to read it's one with a happy ending.

sandra seamans said...

Haven't heard of John Collier, Thomas, but many writers were writing flash before it was made popular by the Internet. They were just called short-shorts back then. :)