Tara Laskowski is the author of the short story collections Bystanders and Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons. She has been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010, and her flash fiction has been featured in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International and many other publications. Her story “Ladies Night” won first place in the KYSO Flash fiction-writing challenge. Tara will make her EQMM debut in our special “All Nations” issue (May 2016), on sale next week; in it, she represents the United States with a haunting flash fiction tale that illustrates well the points she makes about writing flash fiction in this post.—Janet Hutchings
Great crime flash fiction is hard to come by. It’s tough to write a satisfying story in 1,000 words or less. It’s even harder to incorporate a compelling crime or mystery.
I have been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, an online flash-fiction literary magazine, for six years now. During that time, I’ve read more than ten thousand submissions (we get an average of 90-100 stories each week). The majority of what we publish is not crime fiction—we tend more toward general fiction or experimental flash—but we do occasionally publish crime fiction, and we’ve seen a lot of it come our way in the submission queue.
So what makes for a good one? That is a more elusive question. Each time you say not to do something, someone comes around and shows you how that rule can be broken. But I do think there are guidelines you can follow to make your flash fiction more compelling. Here are a few.
1. Don’t try to do too much. Flash fiction works best when it’s focused. This doesn’t mean it has to be simplistic, but it should be streamlined. Don’t worry about trying to fit in the plotting of a crime, the execution, and the aftermath, all while trying to juggle a love interest. Focus on one small thing and tease it out, play with it, have fun.
2. Cut, omit, skip, delete. Some of the best flash writers are the ones who know when to omit details, how to say the most in the least amount of space. Flash is an art in economy—economy of language—and that brevity makes everything else seem fuller and richer. “The Drive” by Gabrielle Sierra in Issue 44 of SmokeLong Quarterly, for example, focuses on the moments after something brutal has happened. We don’t ever learn what the crime is, and it doesn’t matter, because what this story is interested in is how these two characters are going to survive what comes next.
3. Stay away from surprise or punch-line endings. Your story’s only purpose should not be a surprise reveal at the end. That leaves the reader feeling cheated. I once read a submission that detailed a person methodically killing someone in a bathtub. There were grim descriptions of blood and gore and how the murderer was feeling while they were killing, and a lot of it was done well. But then at the end, you discover that the “person” in the bathtub was really a chicken.
Don’t get me wrong—chicken is delicious. But that story would’ve been much more effective as an exploration of a killer’s feelings rather than an elaborate set-up for the writer to jump out from behind that shower curtain and say, “Gotcha!”
This is not to say that you can’t have interesting twists or reveals at the end of flash fiction. When it does work, it’s brilliant—but the story cannot weigh entirely on it or it will collapse. The best stories are the ones in which that twist is inevitable, in which, when you read it, you realize that the writer was taking you purposefully on this journey. It’s a satisfying and inevitable turn, not an out-of-the-blue trick that the writer purposefully hid from you.
Here are two examples. Annabel Banks does a fabulous job of building up tension in the story “Payment to the Universe,” published by matchbook last year. We follow a maid, seemingly going through an ordinary night of cleaning an office building. But the odd details about the place make you realize that something’s not quite right. The mood of the piece sets you up for the ending, so that when it happens, it creeps you right to the bone. It stays with you because the story prepared you for it, not because of a weak plot trick.
The same rings true for Art Taylor’s recent flash “The Blanketing Snow” published at Shotgun Honey. If you’ve read any of Art’s longer stories published in EQMM, you know he’s a master of traditional storytelling. He takes his time. Usually this might not work well with a form like flash, but it does in this story because Art focuses so closely on one moment. He’s also retelling a well-known fairy tale, which helps with subtext. But what works best about the chilling ending—which I won’t spoil for you—is that, like Annabel, Art has already woven it carefully into the narrative. The loss, the burdens, the chill in these characters sinks in thoroughly and completely.
4. Pay attention to language. This one’s a little squishier. At SmokeLong, one of our biggest critiques about stories is that they don’t feel like flash. They are more like short stories that happen to be…well, short. Or they feel like scenes from a longer piece.
Flash has what I like to call a magic rhythm to it. They can be like songs, with a unique melody, and when they start, the good ones are pushing you along, daring you to stop reading them. They have a purpose and an urgency.
At SmokeLong, the flash we publish—whether crime or fantasy or literary—tends to have an attention to language and description that makes it rise above the plot. Check out “The Final Problem“ in our latest issue, as an example.
Very short fiction needs to have some action going on at the sentence level. It needs to be beautiful, even if it’s about ugly things. I believe that’s what makes brilliant flash fiction. The story might be short—but if it’s done correctly it won’t be the crime on the page you remember so much as the way the story cut you to the bone, shred your heart into a million pieces, and punched you in the gut. That’s the kind of brutality I’m looking for.
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Great advice, Tara! Insightful, not only because you’ve read so many, but because you saw through them.
Tara, this is perfect timing for me. Thank you for refocusing my energy back to what works.
I like some of the deeper insights about language, rhythm, and avoiding cheap surprise tactics. Thanks for this!
Indeed, appreciated info on getting the job done. Thank you.
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As someone struggling with flash fiction, trying to get suspense in 1000 words.. is really hard. Yours is an interesting and insightful post, Thankyou!