Five Common Mistakes Writing Fantasy Flash Fiction
During my time as a flash editor for various ezines, I’ve read a fair chunk of speculative flash fiction. Some excellent. Some good. Some bad. Some really, really bad. And as varied as the submissions tend to be, I’ve found that a common thread runs through the subs that lean toward being worthy of the fires of Mount Doom: A misunderstanding of what flash fiction is, how the medium functions in relation to fantasy, and what it requires of you as a storyteller.
If you’ve ever written flash fantasy, you know how challenging it can be to fit a fully-rounded story into fewer than a thousand words (or whatever word count the market you’re writing for requires). Maybe you’re sitting on a flash story right now that isn’t working, and you’re not sure how to fix it. Never fear! Today I want to look at the five most common mistakes writers make when crafting a piece of fantasy flash fiction.
5. Forgetting Your Audience
When writing flash fiction of any genre, it’s important to keep in mind that the same people who’ll pick up an 800-page tome by Gail Z. Martin or Brandon Sanderson are not necessarily the same people who’ll be reading your thousand-words-or-less story. The same people who say they “don’t have time to read” are often the same people who sit at the computer for several hours at the end of every day, reading a heck of a lot more than they realize. These people will happily click through a link from a friend and read a brief piece of fiction—whereas they likely wouldn’t do the same if that friend handed over a paperback.
That means you have a lot less time to grab your reader’s attention, and you’re going to need to hold that attention all the way through to the end. Drop the pace or confuse the reader and they’ll click that little red ‘X’ without a second thought.
All too often, writers try to cram in as much epic-ness as they possibly can into a decidedly non-epic storytelling medium. If you’re tackling fantasy flash fiction, it’s important to approach the story with a different mindset: Think small. Think tight. “Less is more” isn’t a cliché, it’s the truth. If you forget who you’re writing for, you’ll lose your audience—or never gain one in the first place.
4. Too Much Plot
Look, I know how tempting it is to let your characters take over the story and decide they need to quest through the Forbidden Forest while dispatching missives to a neighboring kingdom to solve the King’s political crisis, even though his daughter is in love with a rogue centaur who happens to be a sworn enemy of the state and by the way, the world’s magic is fading and the characters suspect they can fix the problem if they can swing by the Mystical Fountain of the Bearded Lady and…
…you get the point, right?
In flash fiction, you don’t have a whole lot of space within which to tell your story. That means paring it down—focusing on one situation or incident that needs resolution. Think of it like a sitcom: Put your characters in a high-intensity situation that can realistically be managed within a half hour (otherwise known as the required word count). Introduce the conflict, allow the characters to work through the problem, implement the solution, and resolve the scenario.
There’s one potential pitfall here, though. While flash fiction doesn’t need complete resolution at the end of the story, it does need some measure of resolution in order to leave the reader satisfied and fulfilled. This means that you should never, ever pluck a chapter or scene from your WIP and submit it to a flash market as a complete flash story. Want to use the same characters and write a piece of flash with them? Sure! Go for it! But taking a scene from one of your chapters? This is fantasy flash fiction anathema. Plus, it will make me sad. Editors can tell. Seriously. Please don’t do it.
Taking a scene from a longer work and calling it flash almost always runs the risk of too much plot. Why? Because in a longer work, there’s a lot more going on than the immediate task at hand, and there’s no feasible way to resolve this satisfactorily in a thousand words. Readers will be left wondering if there’s something they’ve missed, or even scratching their heads in confusion over why this scenario happened in the first place (since the catalyst likely occurred earlier in the longer work).
3. Too Many Characters
How does a writer’s plot get away from him or her in the first place? For me, it’s the characters. They have things they want to do, places they want to go, people they want to meet… and if I don’t rein them in, they’ll run roughshod over my carefully crafted piece of flash.
In fantasy, readers and writers are used to dealing with a lot of characters. Multiple main characters, necessary secondaries, countless walk-ons…if you’re not careful, suddenly you’ve got a cast list that’s growing faster than Richard Rahl’s ego. Are all these characters necessary? Most of the time, yes—if we’re talking about a typical fantasy novel. Each character has a role to play, and if they don’t? Presumably those ones were cut during the editing process. Even walk-on characters advance the story in some way, so it’s no wonder that in a large, complex fantasy novel there’s going to be a large, complex cast list.
Take that same mindset into a piece of flash, however, and what are your readers going to do? Same thing as most of the characters in your story: Wander around looking confused until someone bothers to explain what’s going on.
In a thousand words or fewer, there’s literally not enough space to introduce, establish, provide conflict for, resolve conflict for, and show development of an entire party. And let’s face it—without character development, what’s the point? (Unless that is the point…but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend it isn’t.) Readers want to make connections with your characters. Readers want to relate to them, empathize with them, and share in the journey toward growth. If you’re attempting to introduce a seven-member party in a thousand-word story, not only is it highly unlikely that each character will attain the desired character growth from beginning to end, but it’s even less likely that your readers will be able to find and connect with any of the characters at all. The story will be stretched too thin over too many people—that is, if the story can even break through the crowd to make an appearance in the first place.
Considering that flash fiction is best served by focusing on one specific situation or moment of conflict at a time, the ideal number of characters sustained by fantasy flash seems to hover around one to three individuals. That way, the writer is able to introduce each character without allowing the characters to overwhelm the plot, but also allow the plot to serve each character’s journey toward the story’s resolution.
2. Too Much Description
Similar to the issue of too many characters, the problem of too much description doesn’t tend to arise in traditional length fantasy novels. Many people love reading description—they love immersing themselves in the look and feel what’s happening, and really experiencing what each character sees, hears, and smells (and, ahem, wears…I am respectfully looking at you, Mr. Jordan).
Great. Fantastic. If you’re crafting a tome of voluminous proportions, that is. If you’re writing flash? Just like the cast list, less is more. Readers don’t want to know the fabric and design and trim and adornment of every female character’s dress. By the time you’re finished describing just one dress, half your word count is gone and the world is undoubtedly about to end because your characters couldn’t manage to make it to the Sea of Everlasting Balefire in time.
I don’t know about you, but as much as I love empire waists and cummerbunds, I don’t have time for them in my flash fiction. Let us know that your hero is dressed in rags—if it’s crucial to the story. Let us know that your thief is wearing a custom-leather catsuit—if it’s crucial to the story. If it’s not? Don’t be afraid to allow those old fantasy tropes to work for you. Readers’ imaginations will fill in the blanks where you can’t. Wizards wear robes, farmers wear boots, dwarves carry axes. Your readers know this. Unless there’s something immensely different about your characters and what they’re seeing or doing that has a direct impact on the plot, it doesn’t matter.
Only describe what’s different and what matters. Everything else is filler. Leave it out.
1. Too Much Worldbuilding
When trying to write tight, one only need harken back to the wise words of everyone’s favorite Genie: “Great big cosmic powers? Itty bitty living space!”
Now, without getting into an argument over the justice of the caste system in Agrabah and the political correctness of enslaved magical beings, consider how relevant the maxim is for the fantasy flash fiction writer (this makes sense, I swear). You, the writer, have “great big cosmic powers”—you can create any scenario you want, fashion and destroy worlds, rewrite history with a mere thought, and yet…those powers are confined within the boundaries of your storytelling medium of choice. And flash fiction can feel especially confining for those who aren’t used to working inside such comparatively small boundaries.
Especially—and I stress this in particular—for those who have world-building fever.
Do you love to create maps of trade routes? Magic systems? Lists of which agricultural goods are available in which region during each season? Entirely new religions? Then I recommend you try writing a piece of fantasy flash. Why? Because it will force you to pare your story down to its absolute barest essentials. There’s no time or space to describe how your world works, or to clarify why your Orc-mage can’t heal on Tuesdays (or, sorry, “Grnukdays”, because you’ve probably created a new language or two as well). All too often, writers of fantasy flash try their very best to cram their new, unique world into a thousand-word story…resulting in a jumbled, confusing mess on top of a plot that lacks any sort of logic or coherence.
Let me explain it another way: If your piece of flash contains multiple references to things/events/systems/items within the world that are unexplained in the rest of the piece—and are unfamiliar to the reader—the references don’t need to be there. You don’t have space to address them, so why include them in the first place? Mentioning things in your world, without offering an explanation, is one of the best ways to lose a reader. They’re not going to understand what you’re talking about, so why should they care about your story?
There are several solutions to this problem, and the first one is to simply cut out all unnecessary elements of worldbuilding. Is that aspect of the magic system crucial to the plot? If not, cut it out. Is that Chalice of Warbling Darkness really going to advance the story? If not, leave it on the shelf. And does that bow and arrow on your elf’s back actually have to differ from the bows and arrows in our world? Ah…now that’s where a second solution arises.
If you absolutely must worldbuild, and absolutely must include aspects of this worldbuilding in your flash piece, your readers will be best served by familiarity. If characters are traveling through a jungle region, don’t spend three quarters of your flash piece describing the deadly man-eating trees. Allow your readers’ familiarity with the jungles of our world to paint the world’s picture for you, and continue on with the story. Similar to paring down description, reducing the amount of the unfamiliar in a fantasy flash piece can help create the desired sense of atmosphere and tone without wasting all your storytelling space on explanations.
Pare it down. Keep the basics. Eliminate the rest. And then write the best damn piece of fantasy flash fiction possible.