Revise in Five
Unfortunately, despite what the title might suggest, this article is not going to help you revise your flash fiction in 5 minutes. More like 5 steps, tips, things to keep in mind. I recently calculated and determined that in 2021 I read about 3,000 flash stories with a critical eye (reading for Flash Frog, editing my own work, and the many clients for which I provide feedback). And that number doesn’t even include all the published flash I read in my favorite lit mags. And while obviously each flash piece is a unique beast and each author a unique beast-tamer, making no two revision processes the same, I have found these five approaches useful time and time again. I hope something here is helpful for you!
(And let me apologize in advance for the heavy use of analogies. Thinking in these contexts helps me get out of my writerly head and see things from a different angle.)
So many times, I come across stories that begin with setting up the scene, or setting up our main character, or providing backstory to give the conflict some context. And while much of this can work in novels or short stories, it rarely works well in flash. We simply don’t have time to “set things up.” Be brave and throw us right into the deep end, trust your writing and trust your readers—we will figure things out. Of course, we don’t want to be lost, but challenge yourself to establish those grounding elements in just one sentence.
Doing all this setting up does make sense for the writing process, however, so it’s okay (often necessary even) to let it happen in the first draft. Like an athlete warming up and stretching before the game, we too need to get our blood pumping, find our footing, get our game face on. But LeBron James doesn’t need to show us his butterfly stretch and side bends. We only tune in for the game.
Here’s one exercise that may help you see where your story really starts: Delete the first line. Does the story still make sense? Yes? Then leave it out. Then delete the next line and ask yourself the same question. Keep cutting until you can’t cut any further without completely losing the core of the story. (This only works, however, if you're really honest about what's essential.)
Now the same thing could also be said for endings. I often see writers over-write the end. But I won’t repeat myself; you can also apply the above approach to the end of the story.
Instead I’d rather talk about “types” of endings. I have many writers come to me asking for help because they are "struggling with the ending." Oftentimes, they want to end the story with an impactful resonant emotion. Naturally. Isn’t that what we're all striving for? But too many times, writers try to accomplish this with an interior dialogue within the main character or with the narrator explaining the gravity of the situation and/or the emotions involved. Or the writer is simply searching for that grand profound statement. But again: trust your writing, trust your readers. Most likely, you’ve already done all the heavy lifting in the bulk of the story. If you’re relying on the last two lines to carry the whole piece, then maybe something else isn’t working. So instead of trying to tell the readers how they should be feeling and instead of telling us the big emotions the character is now going through, try ending with a clear image or action. If the rest of the story is doing its thing, the right image will say everything.
For example, instead of giving us an interior monologue about how Susan decided to finally stop taking birth control without telling her husband, what if we just see the clear image of the tiny round white pill, discarded and sitting next to a glass of water on the dark oak nightstand.
Several years ago I used to work for a large consulting company, and the motto they force fed us until we choked was “Moments that Matter”. Apparently we were supposed to make these with our clients. But instead I spent my time thinking about the moments that matter in my fiction. Maybe that’s why I don’t work there anymore.
In writing, I like to call these moments shifts. And I am by no means encouraging a formula to flash, but one way to look at a story that feels flat is to look at the second half of the piece and ask yourself – what is the shift that occurs? Is there one? Is it big enough? Our stories are typically heading along a certain trajectory and oftentimes we need to flip the switch on the tracks, send that train in a different (unexpected) direction. The shift – or moment that matters – could be something big and shocking or could be something seemingly minor that ends up turning everything on its head or adding so much more weight to the situation. It will obviously appear as something different in every story, but it can often be a helpful concept to ask yourself in the revision process. Of course, the caveat here is that these shifts still have to be organic to the story. No sudden meteor crashes just to spice things up.
The sister question to “what is my shift” is “is there enough at stake?” In other words, does the main character have enough to gain or lose to make this moment matter? If not, asking yourself how you can up the stakes might be the key that opens up the story.
Two examples I love that have somewhat subtle, but very impactful shifts are Abbie Barker's "The Brad Pitt Method" and Rebecca Ackermann's "The Performer". See if you can locate the exact line in the second half where things shift.
4. CUT, CUT, CUT
One of my all-time favorite things to do in writing (and in life) is to cut, to tighten, to trim the fat. We get so caught up in the story sometimes, that we don’t realize we just said something in 15 words when we could have said it just as well (if not better) in 6. I usually do a round of revision that is only dedicated to this cutting and tightening of language. If you’re looking at other big-picture elements, you’ll often miss the small trimmings. And they may seem small, but collectively they can streamline the tone, the rhythm, the pacing.
An absolute vital strategy is to read the piece out loud. And I don’t mean mumbling quietly under your breath the way you might do basic mental math. I mean, read it out loud like you’re preforming a monologue on Broadway. Okay that might be a bit much, but you get the point. When reading aloud you can really hear the voice and the pacing of the piece and where you get tripped up in your reading… that’s a sign! Don’t blame your reading skills. Look at that part again. Closely.
Another common place I see where easy cuts can be made is where a story shows us something and then tells us what it just showed us. If Johnny gets so angry that he punches a hole in the wall, you don’t have to follow up by telling us how mad he is. We know he’s pissed. He just punched a hole in the wall! Once again, this goes back to my revision mantra: trust your writing, trust your readers. Let the actions do their job.
While many of the tips above could arguably apply to longer stories as well, I feel this one is more particular to flash fiction specifically. As opposed to the line edits of the last tip, this one deals with the exact opposite. The big picture, the scope of the story, how much are you biting off? I would say the number one reason we pass on a story at Flash Frog is because it is what I call an “and then story.” In an “and then story” we have so much ground to cover that we have to move quickly from one point to the next until all I’m reading is and then this happened and then this and then this and then and then… and before I know it we told a big whopper of a story, but I’m left not really knowing any of the characters or how they’re feeling or what matters to them or how they might be changed. There’s not much takeaway that has me thinking about the story later that day.
The analogy I like to use when thinking about scope is that of movies. And if you think about each story as a movie, obviously you can’t write the whole thing scene by scene, line by line (duh, we call those novels). So I've found that what many writers end up doing is trying to cover nearly the same amount of ground, but it has to come out much thinner and rushed... and then and then and then… I often feel as though I’m reading a movie summary or watching it in fast forward. Which, turns out, is not as fun as actually watching the movie. Instead, here is how I think flash fiction operates, at least in many pieces that speak to me: what if you just showed us a freeze frame of the best scene of the movie, hyper zoomed in on the moment, letting us take in every detail. Or what if you just showed us a two-minute clip… shown in real time, letting us hear the characters and really feel the emotion of those two minutes. We might not know the other 88 minutes, but damn that scene was moving, (and readers can actually put things together better than we might expect.)
In flash, I’d much rather sit and marinate in a singular, important moment, than try to zoom through a longer tale that has been sped up. So I think it’s an important exercise in flash to look at the scope of how much story you are actually trying to cover on the page. And be okay with just focusing on that one moment. Oftentimes this results not just in a little trimming, but an entire reworking, refocusing of the piece.
And just to be sure I follow through with the promise of too many analogies… another way to look at flash is through the analogy that every flash piece is a large rock thrown into a lake. (I’m borrowing this from some brilliant writer, and I apologize for not remember who it was.) Sometimes as readers we are only shown the rock being thrown and are left to imagine the splash and the ripples it creates. In other flash pieces, we are only shown the big splash, and yet in others we are only shown the network of ripples that are expanding outward across the water, and we as readers work to put together the splash and who through the rock. Be okay with not trying to skip a rock across the whole lake. Because there’s no splash in that.
Two tiny pieces that do a stunning job of showing us just a singular moment, just the tiny ripples in the water, are Sarah Freligh's "Stay" and Cathy Ulrich's "I Do Not Want to Live Without You". When reading these, notice how much you feel the big splash without ever needing to see it.
Obviously these are not hard and fast rules. And these tips might not apply to or work for every piece, but hopefully there was something here that was a little bit helpful. Or better yet, hopefully it got you thinking about your own process, your own stories, in a slightly new way.
Trust your writing. Trust your readers.