Why You Need to Use Flash Fiction as a Novelist

What if I told you that novelists should write flash fiction? At first glance, it probably seems a little strange. If you want to be a good novelist, shouldn’t you spend your time actually writing novels?

While it’s good to spend most of your time writing what you’ll use, things like short stories, poems and even essays can make you a better novelist. Flash fiction, however, is especially useful.

What’s so special about flash fiction?

One of the greatest perks of flash fiction is that it’s an incredible tool for fleshing out your novels. When used properly, it can develop your characters, plot, and world through subtle but effective details. It can also help you strengthen your craft when used in specific, intentional ways.

But there’s one thing in particular that makes it stand out from other forms of short fiction: it’s really short. Few writers have the luxury of writing full-time, so we need to cram it in between other parts of our day.

Flash fiction pieces range from 6 to 1,000 words, so they’re easy to write quickly. The ability to develop your stories and your writing craft without sacrificing huge amounts of time is what makes it so beneficial.

It’s important to mention that I’m not referring to more classical, highly structured flash fiction. Rather, I’m talking about pieces that fit the flash fiction word count, but that are written for your own benefit. Most of it likely won’t be saleable.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into how to effectively use flash fiction!

Developing novels through flash fiction

When I’m in the outlining stage of my novels, I’ll often write brief scenes from within the story. These scenes will occasionally make it into the actual novel, but often they serve a more important function: They help me to bring my characters, plot and world to life before I actually begin drafting.

As much as I love outlining, it does have limitations. You can’t always outline the way that two characters will interact, for instance. But if you can write it out, then you can plan for it within your outline. This gives you a lot of flexibility to change and create details before you start drafting.

1. Characters

Flash fiction is a great tool for developing character personalities and backstory. It also shows how they interact with their environment and the characters around them. Be sure to throw them into some stressful situations, to see how they react under pressure.

2. Plots

To develop my plots, I often write out parts of major scenes in advance. This lets me see how they play out. The inciting incident, midpoint and climax are especially important. Remember that these scenes can be quite rough  – you don’t need to use them in the novel. Having them in your back pocket can be helpful, however.

3. Worldbuilding

Finally, flash fiction is fantastic for developing your story world if you’re writing speculative fiction. Many of the most specific and memorable details that I’ve discovered have been a result of exploring my world through flash fiction. It’s also a great way to think through practical details. Things like the currency of your world or the political system can be explored through flash fiction.

Staying intentional

The key to using flash fiction is to be intentional about what you want to develop. Writing whatever comes to mind might provide some insights, but it often becomes self-indulgent rambling.

In order to make the most of your flash fiction writing, always plan out these three elements:

  1. What the scene is about. What are you hoping to discover with this piece? If you want to develop your magic system, for instance, you could write a scene where the characters are practicing their skills.
  2. The characters in the scene. Flash fiction needs to stay short, so keep it to 2-3 characters max. Ideally, choose characters who need development in some way.
  3. The setting. Especially in speculative fiction, you can learn a ton about your world by writing in a specific setting. This can range anywhere from the wilderness (learning about the flora and fauna), to the local marketplace.

Again, the key here is brevity. Remember that these flash fiction pieces are to learn about your story, not to procrastinate writing or outlining! Give yourself room for creativity, but don’t dawdle once you’ve accomplished what you came for.

Honing your craft with flash fiction

As useful as flash fiction is for developing your stories, it’s also amazing at helping you develop specific skills. Many writers are aware of weak spots in their writing, but they’re unsure how to solve them. While it’s not a magic cure-all, flash fiction has the ability to let you hone in on specific skills in order to work on them. To name just a few ideas, you can hone your ability to write dialogue, create lifelike character voices, set up a strong tone through the words that you’re using and develop powerful character motivations.

I’ve personally used flash fiction to get better at writing descriptions. Especially when I started, a lot of my scenes took place in a vacuum. Flash fiction exercises have allowed me deep-dive into writing descriptions. I wouldn’t call description one of my strengths now, but it’s no longer my greatest writing weakness, either.

As I’ve used flash fiction over the years to hone my writing abilities, I’ve stumbled across a lot of great exercises and created even more. Rather than keeping them to myself, I’ve assembled them into a free ebook that I hope will be a blessing to you. No matter what stage of the writing journey you’re in, I believe that these exercises can help you grow in your ability to tell amazing stories.

You can download the resource by filling out the form below!

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RuthAnna Miller
RuthAnna Miller
3 months ago

Okay, now I’m inspired to go write flash fiction. XP Your note about characters and finding out how they interact especially stuck out to me. I imagine it would also help me hone my characters’ individual voices.
Thanks for this article, Jonathan!

A. L. Buehrer
3 months ago

I took a long break between books 4 and 5 of the series I’m working on and I’m having a lot of trouble getting back into my story. I’m definitely going to try writing some flash fiction to see if I can get out of the rut. Great post.

Allie Jo Andersen
2 months ago

Flash fiction is one of my favorite tools!! It has really helped me to be dialed in on my prose and writing style. I like the idea of using it for world-building as well as exploring characters and the plot of your book!

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