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Flash Fiction Story Examples and Writing Tips

Often when we think of fiction, the novel comes to mind—a large expanse of an entire and vivid world filled with complicated and memorable characters. In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, for example, we have the story of a girl (Matilda!) whose powers of telekinesis are used to resist the strain of greedy adults around her, and whose love of books and school helps her gain independence. Even more than the novel, the series we love hold power over our minds for the time spent dwelling with beloved characters in thought-up lands. It took seven books for us to learn what would happen to Harry Potter and his friends and professors at Hogwarts. Or the three books following Katniss Everdeen through The Hunger Games to know what would become of her, her family, and the districts—if resistance could help change her world.

But, there are also smaller texts—small as gems—in which what is left out matters as much if not more than what is given to a reader. Pieces that, in just a few sentences, can bring a swell of feeling to the reader. Sentences that work at warp speed. This is the world of flash fiction.

flash fiction story examples

Examples from the Mother of Flash Fiction: Lydia Davis

What a time to be a reader when the mother of flash fiction herself, Lydia Davis, is alive and writing. Davis is known for many things—her many collections of fiction; her translations of Proust, Flaubert, Foucalt and others; and many literary awards. Above all, she is “the master of a literary form largely of her own invention”, a fiction of such brevity it has become its own genre: flash fiction.  But what is the difference between a short story, and “flash fiction”?

Even the shortest of short stories use the same elements we see in novels: character development, dialogue, and narrative. The time span covered is often shorter—we get some scenes versus whole years, we follow a turning point or an ending in detail without the kind of time passing that you might have in a whole novel. But flash fiction is different still. While there can be characters and actions, there are other stranger turns these pieces can take. Davis, as an example, is one of the few writers whose works of flash fiction have appeared in both The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Poetry series. There are poetic ideas and techniques that are more prevalent in flash fiction than in other fiction forms. The same way that a poem can turn at the end of each line, flash fiction can take strange leaps between sentences.

To Davis, these stories are skyscrapers. Michael H. Miller says “She (Davis) compares them to buildings that don’t have any weak points, nothing that could start to crumble. They are, like skyscrapers, imposing in a physical sense, though less for the building itself and more for the expanse of sky left surrounding it.” Even this quote is like a short prose poem that we need to unpack. Comparing a story to a building is the kind of exact and strange metaphor we might find in poetry. So in this case, flash fiction is made of a few sentences that “don’t have any weak points”. Each word you place in these brief stories has to be looked at closely. And each sentence has to earn its page space. Do you really need that detail about the character’s dog? Does it advance the reader’s understanding of what’s happening? Like a building, the flash fiction story has to stand strong on a white page without crumbling. It’s these kinds of nitty-gritty questions about word choice, sentence order, and detail that make flash fiction work. As writers, it is important to think of this imagery as part of the writing and revising process. How much can you say with as few words and images possible?

The Nuts and Bolts of Flash Fiction Writing

Since the usual tools of character development and narrative do not have as much time and space in flash fiction, we’ll need to think of other techniques to convey our feelings and ideas to readers. What we consider as secondary details in larger fiction can be at the forefront of writing in flash fiction.

Images. Sense of humor. Tone. These things tend to come from the larger narrative or character focus in longer fictions. In flash fiction, they drive the writing. Because of the strangeness available to the writer in this form, each word can and should be questioned in revision. Even Davis drafts and redrafts and redrafts these flash fictions, asking herself about every word and detail she includes or takes away. Davis has even given us a sample of her process in The Atlantic, where she goes through two drafts of one of her most known works, “A House Besieged”:

In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and the woman heard small explosions. ‘The wind,’ said the woman. ‘Hunters,’ said the man. ‘The rain,’ said the woman. ‘The army,’ said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.


[images via]

Even in just a small story, we begin to see the importance of order and choice. Especially in looking at Davis’ notes on the first draft, we see which words stayed and why. Some of the details fall away.

For example, in the first sentence, Davis originally wrote: “In a house besieged lives a man and a woman with two dogs and two cats.” As we see looking at the final draft, these details about the pets have no bearing on the story. The point of the story is that the differences of thinking between the man and woman give the woman insight to her longing and loneliness. By cutting the reference to the cats and dogs, the division between the man and woman in this house is more loudly emphasized.

What stays in the story is also important: “The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home…”. Such an exacting way of describing the woman’s emotional state and inner-life without over-explaining things to the reader. We get a sense of the distance between the man and woman and what kind of tension is in this besieged house.

So as we study this genre in reading, we must remember that such brevity can bring us grandiosity of thought and feeling.

Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook by David Galef: Flash fiction writer, David Galef, explores the flash fiction genre and many of its great champions, such as Roxane Gay and Jorge Luis Borges, by categorizing different techniques in the genre. Galef’s handbook is a craft book that traces the origins of flash fiction while teaching direct techniques.

From vignettes, to fables, to prose poems, and character sketches, the prompts and techniques used to create flash fiction are clearly drawn. From the onset, Galef states that “the aesthetics of the miniature world depend on economy and efficiency”, which leads to his starting tips for flash fiction writers: “Cut the opening and get right to the point. Focus on the one telling detail, not the full description. Don’t ‘conclude’, but instead end with action or image.”

These direct and clear techniques appear throughout each section and are paired with exercises and prompts for writers.

More Flash Fiction Examples

Besides his own fiction works and the flash fiction handbook, Galef also wrote Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading. What better genre to read and reread than flash fiction? Like poetry, this genre is meant to slow down our reading and writing—to make us look closely at the very few words and sentences that are there, to let ourselves consider, also, the weight of the white space left on the page. Here are two great books of flash fiction worth reading and rereading as you begin your own works:

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis: Davis’s 700 page book collects 200 stories. Some of these stories are one or two sentences, while others are a few pages. The book contains much white space. As you read and reread these stories, think about how they are, as she says, like skyscrapers. How does collecting them together with their white space make a kind of city?

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges: Unlike Davis, Borges is known for using images and the strangeness of allegory and fable in his pieces. We might even call it mysticism—a play between what we know to be true and those uncertainties in the world, like spirituality, religion, the cosmos, etc. Where Davis uses wit, insight, and abstraction, Borges uses strangeness of narrative, imagery, and magic to evoke a whole world in a tiny space.  As you read and reread these stories, here are some questions to keep in mind that will help you in your own flash fiction writing:

  • When does the writer give details? When does the writer leave out the details? Is this different for Davis than for Borges? Why? Why not?
  • What happens when you rearrange the sentences in these pieces? What if the last sentence was where the story began? How can you use these rearrangements to revise your own work?
  • How would you describe the plot in a flash fiction story of your choice? What about the characters? What details or moments give you clues into what has happened?

So dear writers, as you enter the blank page, bring inspiration from these remarkable writers who’ve left us with many many stories, all in miniature. We can’t wait to see what happens in the tiny worlds of your own pages this month!

About Lisa Hiton

Lisa Hiton is an editorial associate at Write the World. She writes two series on our blog: The Write Place where she comments on life as a writer, and Reading like a Writerwhere she recommends books about writing in different genres. She’s also the interviews editor of Cosmonauts Avenue and the poetry editor of the Adroit Journal.


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