Flash Fiction: What Makes a Successful Short-Short Story?

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For a story to be a complete story, we only need one small element within the narrative to be resolved. This element can be tiny. It is often unhappy. It might leave us with millions of questions, but it answers one.

What is resolved within a story is not always something that happens externally, but internally. Often writers are told that their protagonist must change somehow from the beginning of the story to the end, and usually, people take this to mean that something huge must happen (see earlier articles on death, disease, zombies, etc).

But this is not true. An emotion can change. The way one sees something can change. A mood can change. A character might simply decide to make themselves tea.

Many of my students are relieved when I tell them not to focus on plot and to only aim for one small moment. Similarly, many students are glad when I assign 1-2 page pieces of fiction or flash fiction, as they think that the less they have to write, the easier it will be.

However, this is not the case. Writing flash fiction (also referred to as micro fiction, short-short fiction, postcard fiction, and sudden fiction) does not mean you simply write 1-2 pages. The same “rules” apply to a successful piece of flash fiction as they do in longer stories. This means that the writer has much less time to create a believable world before attempting to resolve something within it. This is often much more difficult.

One of the masters of flash fiction is the writer Lydia Davis, author of The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories, Break It Down, and Varieties of Disturbance among other books.

Her stories have been published together in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

Her story below is an example of how little has to change in order for the narrative to be "complete."

FEAR

Nearly every morning, a certain woman in our community comes running out of her house with her face white and her overcoat flapping wildly. She cries out, “Emergency, emergency,” and one of us runs to her and holds her until her fears are calmed. We know she is making it up; nothing has really happened to her. But we understand, because there is hardly one of us who has not been moved at some time to do just what she has done, and every time, it has taken all our strength, and even the strength of our friends and families too, to quiet us.

Davis has chosen a fiction-worthy moment: the woman coming out of her house screaming “Emergency, emergency," every day. She has acknowledged the truth of this moment, and the relatability: surely there are many moments each of us feels that we cannot bear whatever the drain of our life may be. She points this out and shows us something we already know, but in a new way. The idea that the neighbors are helping this woman but that they feel empathetic towards her, that she represents everyone's wants and needs, makes the satisfaction emotional. The sadness is admitting that life is too much, but that most of us can’t actually say so. The sadness is that someone says so every day, but is no better for it. The sadness is that we all feel this way, but stay quiet in our houses, telling no one.

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