Musings on Flash Fiction

by | April 11, 2017 | General | 4 comments

By Ian Smith

Most regular participants in the ERWA “storytime” workshop group will know I’m quite enthusiastic about writing flashers, our in-house term for flash fiction.

Broadly speaking, flash fiction can be a short story of up to 1200 words, but lower word counts are often set for competitions and calls for submission. Being the ERWA, and up for a challenge, we limit flashers to no more than 200 words, ideally including some form of character development and a complete story arc, so that they feel like a complete story.

No, telling a story in only 200 words isn’t easy!

Before I joined the ERWA, the word count was only 100, and I’ve been really impressed by how much story could be told in some of these older pieces.

Yes, I know there’s the familiar idea that you can tell a story in four words, typically something like “Wedding dress, never worn”. Personally, I don’t think that’s a story. It would be a great title or first line, but for me the story is why the wedding dress is unworn.

So, why write flash fiction at all?

I think it’s great fun. The challenge for me is to think about exactly what shows my story unfolding, and how economically I can share it with a reader.

Writing flash fiction has become an integral part of my development as a writer. On the rare occasions when I’m on-form, I can sit down and write two or three different stories in a couple of hours. I’ve found flash fiction to be a really handy way to sketch out an idea which can be developed into a longer story. Two of my flashers ended up being developed into longer scenes in my as-yet-unpublished novel. The characters in one 200-word flasher stuck in my mind and to date I’ve written three novellas about them, with others to follow.


Think about your story idea as a TV commercial rather than as a show. Drop us right into the action and push us into running with your characters.

How little do you need to say about the setting, to describe your characters, or tell us what they’re doing? Every word has to count, to tell us something, so use really specific nouns and verbs to show us your story. People don’t use perfect grammar in speech, so you can get your characters to tell us something in dialogue in fewer words than you could in narrative.

Be ambiguous and invite your reader to create the details. The two words “threadbare sheets” may be enough for your reader to imagine a squeaky, worn-out bed in a cheap and grubby hotel. Maybe even a flashing neon light outside the window?

Think about the ending being like the punchline in a joke – hit us with a twist. Naughty, nice or nasty? Well, that’s up to you.

To save on words, use “action tags” to indicate who’s speaking a line of dialogue, and these can sort of imply more. For instance:

            Ella sat up. “My husband’s back.”

This only actually tells us Ella sat up. But as it’s in the same paragraph as the dialogue, it’s clear that she said those words. And, given the context, one could easily imagine her sitting up abruptly, looking alarmed and sounding worried, maybe even getting out of bed and grabbing some clothing. And she clearly has company, presumably someone she hopes her hubby doesn’t know is with her.

I think Malin James hit every nail on the head during her presentation on writing erotic flash fiction at Eroticon 2017. She generously posted a copy of both her slides and script on her blog, which are well-worth reading.

You can read some examples of flashers on the ERWA website, in the periodically-refreshed Gallery and in the Treasure Chest.

I’ve found the tricks I’ve learned writing flash fiction can be just as useful in longer stories. They can help keep the story moving by engaging the reader and leading them along. Using action tags really can help with this.

Writing economically can really show us your character’s experience. For instance, in a short, fast-moving action scene, how much would they be consciously aware of? I’ve read stories with action scenes described almost like step-by-step instructions for a dance move. Stopping to recreate it in my mind took me out of the story.

So why not think about a short story idea and see if you can whittle it down to its bare bones? If it’s no more than 200 words, please share it with us on a Sunday in the ERWA storytime workshop. 

Ian Smith

I’m a professional scientist with a career spent primarily in health care. I live in the south-west of England with my wife and our modest menagerie, currently two horses, two dogs and three guinea pigs. My wife wants to keep chickens too.

My career has involved writing really exciting and stimulating scientific papers, technical reports and dissertations... Okay, important and worthwhile, but not "me". I started writing general interest factual articles and features, as well as preparing and giving public talks. These allow my butterfly mind and insatiable curiosity to go off and play nicely together.

Then my curiosity turned towards fiction. My first efforts were dire, of course, but I hope I’m starting to get the idea a bit now. I've had several short stories published in anthologies, as well as three novellas. Supportive and encouraging feedback from other contributors to the ERWA “storytime” mailing list has been a huge help.

I’ve always read for relaxation and now I write as a creative hobby. I hope some readers enjoy my efforts.

Joining in the Sunday “flashers” with ERWA has been great fun and exposed me to a wide variety of work by other authors. Their examples and feedback continually help my writing to develop. I felt very flattered when approached about taking a turn as the flasher gallery editor.

And yes, I'd rather like to keep chickens too. Just a bit tricky in a small urban garden with two hyperactive terriers...

My third novella, "From The Top (Merely Players 3)" has just been published by Fireborn.


  1. Belinda LaPage

    Nice article, Ian. Giving us a private tour of the flasher’s mind. The humble action tag, especially preceding dialogue, is a wonderful and expressive tool that lets you know a writer has — possibly not arrived — but at least stepped up from mundane story narration.

  2. Daddy X

    Great article, Ian. Flashers can make a writer aware of just how few words it takes to tell a story. But we know that the story is not the be-all and end-all of literature. Kinda like music. The notes are just notes. What happens between the notes is music.

  3. Daddy X

    If anyone is interested, check out Etgar Keret’s flash fiction. “The Girl on the Fridge” (one of the best covers I’ve seen) and “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God”. These are flash fiction, but he also has another one out, “The Seven Good Years”, which, for lack of a better term we’ll call, ‘Flash Memoir’. He’s so imaginative, those books encouraged me to assemble a collection of my own flash fiction, “Flash Daddy” coming out in May with Excessica.

  4. sAM tHORNE

    What popped out at me the most from this post – and what was superbly helpful – was the mental image of thinking of a plot the length of an advert. Excellent advice! I really hope to put that framework into practice next time I try one of those dastardly flashers at which you’ve become so expert!

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


Babysitting the Baumgartners - The Movie
From Adam & Eve - Based on the Book by New York Times Bestselling Authors Selena Kitt



Pin It on Pinterest