Using Setting in  Flash Fiction

By S. Joan Popek

 What is flash fiction? 

It is a short-short story that slams into a readers mind and entertains immediately.  The actual word count is debated.  Some editors say any story up to 1000 words is flash fiction.  Others require under 500 words and some flash fiction is counted at 55 words, but the most popular length (and one of the most often used) is 100 words or less.  For our purposes, we will discuss a length of 100 words or less discounting the title and byline.

 That means 100 or less words to tell a complete story.  A complete story includes all the elements of any story: setting, characterization, conflict and with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Flash fiction usually, but not necessarily, has a twist ending--something that the reader doesn't really expect.  I must caution you though that a twist ending doesn't mean a totally unexpected ending that leaves the reader feeling stupid that he didn't see it coming.  Don't come out of left field with an ending that takes the reader completely by surprise.  Leave your reader with feeling of “Ahhh!” not “Boy am I stupid.”

As in any story, your reader should feel “into” the story, not alienated by it.  He should be able to see the beginning, experience the conflict and feel satisfied with the conclusion.

 How do you do that in 100 words or less?  Cut-cut-cut.  In flash fiction, there is no room for extra adjectives or much description.  We must rely upon the reader's perception of his or her world to fill in between the lines.  Use active verbs to move your story along.  Passive, “to be” sentences just won't convey the urgency that flash fiction must have to be successful.

Here is an example:

Long version: The freezing, icy wind which was blowing from the North made John's face feel cold. (15 words)

Flash version: Icy wind bit into John's face. (6 words)

See the impact that action verbs make?  Feel the energy?  We don't need to know that it was a North wind because if it is icy, it is probably a North wind.  If not, unless the direction of the wind is important to your story, you don't need it anyway.  Words like cold are not necessary because if it is “icy” it is cold.  You know that.  So why shouldn't your reader?  Trust your audience to fill in with their own perceptions.  The verb “bit”  in the sentence “bit into John's face.” is much more descriptive and (pardon the pun) biting than “made John's face feel cold.”  Using strong, active verbs gets your point across fast.  And fast is what flash fiction is all about.

Your setting can often be set with your title, giving a sense of place and time so your reader is prepared to enter your story already having an idea of when and where.  Take a look at the flash below to see how.

The Neighbor's Dog
By S. Joan Popek
Flash Fiction (100 words)

That damned hound is howling again.  Every night!
 “Shut up,” I yell.
 “Go to Hell,” the neighbor yells.
 I get my gun.  I'll send that beast back to Hell where he belongs.
 I sneak out to the back fence.
The dog snarls, lunges.  Evil eyes, a demon's.
My gun flashes.  Blood and brains splatter.  I poke his body with the gun barrel--dead.
In my bed, I smile.  Quiet.  I sleep.
The smell awakens me.  Blood and brains!  He snarls, red eyes glowing.  He lunges.  My throat rips as he drags me down into the blackness of Hell.


Flash Fiction is a fun and exacting aspect of writing.  It can tighten your writing and there is a market for it.  You can develop  a flash into action packed longer stories and books that sell.  Write a good flash, sell it, develop it into a longer story and sell that, then if the idea works, create a novel.  You can do all that from one short-short story.  I know because I've done it.

Next time, we'll discuss Characterization in Flash Fiction.  Come back often for more tips.

Author Bio:
S. Joan Popek is an award winning author and past editor for several magazines.  She lives and works in Roswell New Mexico with her husband, Joe and a dog named Nubbins.  You can email her here. She loves to hear from her readers. 

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Copyright 2002, S. Joan Popek. Copyright on all material in this publication is held by S. Joan Popek. Any use without expressed written permission from the author is strictly prohibited.