At Page Turner Magazine, we’re passionate about genre fiction and good storytelling, which is why we regularly host 500-word flash fiction contests. (Our latest Spring contest is open until February 5th, Mystery themed!) We see flash fiction as a low-stress way to explore writing in all different genres and an excellent way to practice storytelling, editing, and creative writing skills. (And, for the procrastinators among us, it’s always nice to have a deadline and a word count to write to!)
On our contest page, we define flash fiction thusly:
Flash fiction condenses longer forms of fiction, such as novels and novellas, into a concise but impactful space without losing the beginning-middle-end structure. But to put it simply, we want flash fiction with a premise that hooks us, prose that inspires us, and an ending that punches us in the face.
Sounds simple, right? It is! But, it can also be really intimidating to stare at a blank screen and know you’ve only got 500 words to bring your brilliant story to life.
After judging four flash fiction contests—and having written untold numbers of these stories ourselves for fun—we wanted to offer up some of our best tips for hitting flash fiction out of the ballpark.
To this end, we surveyed our staff members and asked them how they personally define flash fiction, what to avoid when writing ultra-short tales, and advice on what makes a flash fiction story really shine.
What does flash fiction mean to you?
Flash fiction is a full story condensed into approximately a page of text (at PTM, it’s 500 words or less). —Jill Zacchia, Social Media Manager
A condensed and bite-sized story that packs a punch in a limited number of words. —Alanna Smith, Board Administrator
Flash fiction is a short piece of fiction that, metaphorically, “flashes”—it’s over quickly but it leaves you with an afterimage.—Rifka Handelman, Layout Manager
A short, condensed piece that uses a limited number of words to deliver punchy writing and a complete story. —India Miraglia, Copy Editor
A world or moment on a single page. —Katsumi Sterling, Editor-in-Chief
A fully realized story that operates in the smallest space possible without losing any richness. —Tess Rossi, Copy Chief
A very short story with a beginning, middle, and—most importantly—end, that falls within an allotted word count. (No points for going over this word count!) —Maxine Shen, Features Editor
A whole story told from the start to the end that is, at most, two full pages. —Ghanima Emmanuelle Sol, Copy Editor
A stand alone story that is complete with its own beginning, middle and end with a limited word count. (Word count of your choosing should be mentioned in the contest description or rules). —Camia Rhodes, Feature Writer
What should you avoid when writing flash fiction?
Don’t share a scene from a longer work. Don’t give us a taste of the world only to leave us with an unsatisfying cliffhanger. Avoid flowery writing and clichés. —Jill Zacchia, Social Media Manager
Don’t include too many characters; don’t cheap out on the ending; be ambitious, but not overambitious; omit needless words; show, don’t tell—avoid the temptation to write in a fairy-tale or fable-like style. —Alanna Smith, Board Administrator
Don’t try to write about more than one thing. Pick exactly one thing to focus on—everything else in the story should enhance your focus on that thing. —Rifka Handelman, Layout Manager
Don’t forget to tell a complete story: beginning, middle, and end. Don’t include extra words, phrases, or moments that pull from the story and its pacing. —India Miraglia, Copy Editor
Avoid soft endings without weight. As well as inconsistencies or incomplete threads. —Katsumi Sterling, Editor-in-Chief
Don’t waste words on exposition or worldbuilding at the beginning; include small details throughout the story. —Tess Rossi, Copy Chief
Avoid skimping on the ending—it’s often the best part!—by thinking it’s fine to slap on a wrap-up sentence right before you max out on word count. That ending needs to be set up and earned! And avoid failing to write to the prompt, if you’ve been given one. —Maxine Shen, Features Editor
Avoid being too gentle on your protagonist. A lot can happen in a few words, and the protagonist should react to whatever happens.—Ghanima Emmanuelle Sol, Copy Editor
Make sure it’s clear and concise on what is happening. Because you have so few words, don’t waste time on the little details. So avoid excessive sensory and descriptive detail. Just tell the reader what it is. You don’t have space or time for beating around the bush. —Camia Rhodes, Feature Writer
What do we love to see from flash fiction contest applicants?
Playful exploration of the prompts we’ve given you. (The theme may be “Monsters,” but there are many kinds of monsters out in the world. Let your imagination run wild!)
When we’re surprised by the unexpected. Five hundred words isn’t a lot, but it’s more than enough to draw a reader into a situation and then knock their socks off with an unexpected ending, whether it’s happy, sad, or completely out of left field.
When it’s clear writers have a solid understanding of the possibilities within the genre they’re writing in. (A good romance doesn’t have to be all flowers, candy, and smooching furtively under the bleachers. Romance can be cold, dark, unrequited, fleeting, lost and found! Go wide, but please remember to stay within the assignment parameters.) Do some research, learn the hallmarks of genre, then figure out ways to brilliantly subvert them, if you like.
Good copy and line editing. Read the story out loud at least once—catch those extra words, the run-on sentences, the bits that slow down the pace. You could earn back a couple dozen words and wow us with them when you put them elsewhere in the story!
Do some research, learn the hallmarks of genre, then figure out ways to brilliantly subvert them, if you like.—Maxine Shen, Features Editor
There’s nothing wrong with sticking with tried and true tropes when writing genre flash fiction. But stories that stand out tend to be the ones that build interesting or unexpected vignettes around those tropes, have genuine characters, and maybe have a twist ending or bow out on a short-but-sweet gut punch.
At the end of the day, content is king. A well-written, well-crafted story will always get our attention, but a story that is well-written, well-crafted, AND shows creativity when making an effort to show us a fresh spin on a seemingly obvious theme? Now that’s what gets our votes.
—Maxine Shen, Features Editor