Yvonne Carts-Powell

Rejoice in the tyranny of the clock!

This entry was based on a workshop on short fiction writing. I’ve presented it, in various guises, at several science fiction conventions.

Flashfiction can either be defined as a story that is short in wordcount or that is written within a short time. It is one of my favorite writing tools, because:

  • It short-circuits the well-intentioned but procrastinating author;
  • it diverts the fearful writer (there simply isn’t time to agonize over word choice or whether you are “doing it right”!); and
  • it strips away conscious concerns about style and the juggling of plots and characterization and the countless other elements that go into longer formats. What’s left is the bare bones of story.

We did two exercises in the workshop.(see Footnote 1.) You are welcome to play along at home. All you need something to write with, and a timer. The first one is 5 minutes long, the second one is 20 minutes.

First, we wrote a characterization fragment. Each writer was asked to pick a character that they knew — either an original character that they’d been working with, or a character from a fairy tale, or a TV show or book. (see Footnote 2.)

Then I asked everyone to write at least a paragraph within 5 minutes that provided as much clue about a character as possible, based on the prompt. When you are ready to see the prompt, select the text in this paragraph. The prompt was: what did the character have for breakfast?

One writer was amazed at what she came up with. Another remembered that writing longhand under pressure hurts her hands and wrists. (Be careful! Set up a comfortable workspace!) In general, the writers were pleased and surprised by what they produced in a mere 5 minutes.

Once we’d warmed up with that, we talked a little about what every story needs. It needs

  • character
  • conflict — in other words, plot, but in flashfic the plot must be very simple. You don’t have time for complications. You barely have time for more than 2 or 3 scenes.
  • a hook (the beginning), and most importantly:
  • a sting (the end)

For something as fast as short, timed flashfic, everything should work towards delivering the last line.

Also, one of the people in the workshop mentioned that most of the first exercise was spent planning, pre-writing. Some pre-writing is useful if you don’t know which story to tell, but don’t let it eat more than perhaps a quarter of your time. The idea is to spent 20 minutes to create a complete first draft of a story. Another way of saying this: you aren’t creating a citrus grove, or even a pomelo. But if you do this well, you’ll have a perfect, juicy kumquat of a story — a little self-contained jewel.

A perfect kumquat of a story.

As an aid, I’ll provide you with a prompt, which can be used metaphorically as a theme or literally, which can be explicit in the story or just a starting point. Don’t ponder too long, just grab your characters, get ready, and go!

Set your timer for 20 minutes. When you are ready to see the prompt, select the text in this paragraph. The prompt was: Fire. A wildfire? A candleflame? The electric “campfire” that space cowboys gather around after a long day of herding their asteroids to market? The emotional fire of rage? Of passion? Maybe it’s the colors of a fire?

Okay! How did you do? Some of the writers in the group didn’t finish — but they made a valiant attempt! Some were surprised at what they produced, others surprised at how much they produced.

I wasn’t particularly happy with my attempt today, but that’s okay. It’s only a 20-minute commitment. Sometimes I’ll throw away the results, but other times I’ll keep and polish them. And if I didn’t commit 20 minutes to writing flashfic, I would write far less overall. Even when an attempt is unsuccessful, it tells you something about yourself, about your writing, and it may make the next attempt better.

Still need help getting the words flowing? Try Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die! It works!


New Prompts (20Feb09):
5 minute exercise on writing characters: Tell me about their shoes. What kind of shoes do they own? Do they take care of them? Are they worn at the heel? Does your character dream of wearing boots of Spanish leather or pattens or house slippers fetched by a loyal and adoring mutt?

20 minute exercise on writing a complete story: Dirty hands. The hands of a migrant worker or a child making mudpies? The ever-bloody hands of Lady MacBeth, or Methuselah’s gnarled fingers? How did they ever get so dirty? How did they acquire a smoker’s stains, a clerk’s callouses? Are they a dictator’s soft hands as they pay death squads with untraceable cash. How did one hand reach out to hold someone else’s hand, despite the dirt?


1. These exercises did not spring fully formed from my imagination, like an Athena of writing exercises from the my Zeus-like forehead. Credit goes to a certain an Associate Professor of English, and a number of wonderful pro and hobby writers.

2. Fanfiction is an excellent activity, both because it produces some excellent stories and it provides a social space for experimentation. There are many flashfic communities for specific fandoms on Livejournal. For more about fanfiction in general, see the Organization for Transformative Works.

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  1. Actually, its not so different from the theory behind in-class exams or requiring classroom participation: in both cases, teachers expect time constraints to force a creativity that–even if it feels false or of necessity to the student at first – is actually productive of good ideas. It strikes me that this is the case even more with creative writing, because I think we have a lot of false ideas about what “creativity” is like, and being forced simply to do the work of putting words together might give us the excuse to put aside romantic myths of “inspiration.”

  2. I found this helpful. Thanks for subscribing to my blog, 20 Minutes a Day. I plan to subscribe to yours right now! Len.

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