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For Writers — Suzanne Vincent

August 2008

Writing Speculative Fiction for the Flash Fiction Market

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

We receive many speculative fiction submissions at Flash Fiction Online. Unfortunately we haven’t bought many of them. How can this be true? Isn’t our editorial staff top-heavy with speculative fiction writers?

Yes. And we love good speculative fiction.

However, writing speculative fiction for the flash market is a monster that can’t be conquered with the usual bag of glowing swords and laser beams and wizard’s staffs.

Being speculative, fantasy and science fiction requires the use of some of your writing space to explain the rules of magic and science, and to place the reader in the time and place in which your story dwells. In a longer story or novel these explanations take up a fairly small percentage of the story as a whole. But in flash fiction, because you only have 1,000 words to work with, that percentage climbs dramatically. If the percentage climbs too high, the writer ends up without enough room for characterization or story construction — the two elements most crucial to good flash fiction.

How to solve the problem?

First, recognize that flash fiction in general requires reduction — reduction in the numbers of characters, conflicts and resolutions, scenes, and setting elements. You can fairly accurately gauge the length your story will be dependent on these numbers — a story-length formula. And while a writer who is well-versed in the craft of writing can skillfully manipulate that formula, most writers should reduce, reduce, reduce.

This is especially true of speculative fiction writers.

In general, a flash fiction story can support:

  • 1 to 3 named and/or acting characters;
  • 1 point of conflict to be resolved;
  • 1 to 3 scenes;
  • as few (if any) setting elements requiring detailed description as possible.

So, which of these elements, in any length story, requires the most explanation?

Setting. This includes not only the time and place, but the rules of magic or science.

How can these be reduced? By relying on cliché, of course! By cliché, I mean ‘familiar.’ For instance, instead of setting your story on another world, you might use earth instead. Instead of creating some new species of alien or magical creature, you might use one that’s more familiar — just plain old run of the mill fairies or little bulbous green men from Mars. Use a typical medieval setting or a typical space station setting that requires little or no detailed description. Use typical magical or future-scientific tools that the writer can picture with only a few words of description — a simple magic wand instead of a sliver of unicorn hair implanted into the wizard’s left arm vein on the day of his prepubescent ceremonial sterilization rite by the great sorcerer Alkathaz. See? TMI!!

We see a great many fantasy/science fiction stories in which the writer attempts to introduce a whole world and culture whose elements are too often named but not explained. Rule one is, if the element is important enough to be named, it’s important enough to be explained. Rule two is, if it’s important enough to be explained but it isn’t absolutely crucial to the plot, it probably should be taken out of a flash fiction story. In reality, most of the time these world or cultural elements are not necessary to the telling of the story anyway. Most often they live in the writer’s mind, adding to the atmosphere and helping him/her create a visually rich world for the reader, but have no compelling reason to be included in the story. In other words, they don’t help you understand the characters and their motivations or help move the plot forward.

Eliminate them. We don’t need to know. Save them for your short story or novel.

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About the Author

Suzanne Vincent

The eyes of Suzanne Vincent

Suzanne Vincent — an old fat lady from the heart of Mormondom — ekes out a little spare time to crank out the occasional interesting story, usually with a somewhat deranged bent, but softened by an undercurrent of spirituality. She writes about her interests, which range far and wide: history, "low" fantasy, really good psychological horror, tattoos, Indonesian puppets, fortune cookies, mirrors, and a particular soft spot for old and/or unfamiliar fairy tales, myths, and legends. A 2005 graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp, she regrets not having begun her study of the writing craft while in her youth. "I Speak the Master’s Will" was featured in the first issue of Flash Fiction Online, and "The Cleansing" appeared in November 2008. She has also been previously published at, and her story “Strange Love” was published in audio form at Drabblecast.

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