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Flash Fiction: Using Story Shells to Craft Small, Sharp Narratives

Written by Liz Prather
November 10, 2014

This weekend I delivered a session on flash fiction at the Write Eastern Kentucky Conference on the campus of Morehead State University and decided to share some of my plans here.

While the length of most fiction is determined by the guidelines of the journal or magazine to which you plan to submit your work, a generally accepted word count for a traditional short story is 2000-8000 words while a piece of flash fiction can be as small as 100-1000 words. Most of my student’s flash fiction pieces are between 500-750 words, which is about two-to-three standard 8 ½ x 11 pages, double-spaced in 12 point type.

Unlike vignettes, which tend to be impressionistic or slice-of-life narratives, flash fiction pieces are complete stories with a beginning, middle and an end. Because of the economy of the form, every word, every image, every shred of characterization needs to be exact to deliver the narrative arc precisely, resulting in a full story. My students tend to embrace flash fiction because the stories are simpler, clearer with fewer characters and one central conflict.

There’s no room for exhausting exposition or tangential descriptions that tends to bloat student writing anyway. Because of the demands of the tiny frame, students can’t spin off into pages of backstory either. They have to have a clear vision of a simple story: How do I establish time/place immediately? Who is my main character? What does my main character want? What stands in the way of the main character’s desires? Does she have a distinctive voice? What is the climax and resolution?

I typically start my flash fiction unit with a simple and often-used prompt: Write a 500-1000 word story about two people, who are attempting to do something together, yet become trapped in a small space and each want to do something different than the other. For example, two siblings traveling home over Christmas when a freak snow storm traps them on the highway. One wants to try to get home for Christmas; the other wants to abandon the trip altogether. What happens?

While I like to see students wrestle with structure and framing in a longer, traditional story, I often use ready-made story shells when teaching flash fiction. Because the narrative framing is already there in a story shell, students can focus on the smaller details of diction, selection of detail, verbal precision, and the power of image in characterization.

Here are a few of the story shells I like to use when teaching flash fiction.

  1. Stories in songs: Country music was once known for the story song, but many pop, rock, and R & B songs have simple, narrative stories in their lyrics. The website Lyric Interpretation and Listal’s Songs That Tell Stories allow students to pick a song which offers them the essential elements of the narrative as a shell to develop into the flash fiction piece.
  2. Stories in poems: An About Education site has a collection of ballads that also provide students with a story frame that they can use to develop into small, insular works of fiction. After reading the poem, students delineate the character, conflict, climax and change necessary to create a full story.
  3. Stories in arts: Students can also distill the stories from art. This is a great cross-curriculum activity for humanities as well. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has hundreds of pieces of art works that can be used as the start of a simple story for a flash fiction piece. Using the character and conflict in the art as a starting point, students can render the full narrative in a small story.
  4. Stories in the news: Huffington Post’s Weird News is also a great place to find quirky, ready-made stories that students can use as a narrative frame for a nice flash piece. Parrot Missing for 4 Years Comes Home Speaking Spanish has two characters, a parrot whose been on the lam for four years and his owner. What happened? The perfect shell for a simple story.
  5. Stories in memories: At the beginning of the year, I have students jot down 25 stories or anecdotes that are often retold or repeated by their family. These tend to be funny or sad or bittersweet or haunting. The anecdotes generally have one or two characters and there’s almost always a conflict. With a little fictional tweaking, these personal stories can develop into great flash fiction pieces.

While Short Shorts and Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction have been around since the late 80s and early 90s when the genre seemed to spike, I am partial to the flash fiction on Flash Fiction Online for sci-fi, fantasy and horror flash models that students will enjoy.  

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