Flash Fiction: 50 Word Story Writing Tips

Category: Writing

We're throwing down the ultimate gauntlet and challenging Scotland to write a story in just fifty words. Sounds like a punishingly low word count? It isn't easy, but a 50 word story isn't impossible either. If you want to know what you’re working with, this paragraph is exactly fifty words.

Short stories aren't necessarily 'easier'  to write than novels

It's a common mistake to think that writing a short story must be easier than writing a novel. In fact, you often have to put more thought into a fifty-word story than a fifty-word paragraph that’s part of something longer. You have to squeeze all the usual elements of a story – character, threat, goals – into a much smaller space. You have to be clever. It can be a real challenge, but also hugely gratifying when something works!

Each month, the 50 Word Fiction Competition provides you with a prompt – something to inspire your story. Previous examples have included a photo of a fantastical cavern, a mysterious doorway, and a watch. With a fifty word limit, you have to make your story stand out very, very quickly. Whatever your first idea is when you look at that picture, scrap it. Someone else will have had it. Scrap the second idea too, unless you think it’s really good. By your third or fourth idea, you might just be onto something that nobody else is going to think of, and that’s a very valuable thing.

Since we’re talking about standing out, think about what you can do differently. Try writing in an unexpected style – an unusual tense, or a different point-of-view perhaps.

Ask yourself: do you really need that adjective?

You also need to be a really economic writer – it’s not enough to just trim off the fat, you need to cut down to the bone. Ask yourself: do you really need that adjective? If you do, you need to be sure it’s the perfect word to describe your character. Think about connotations – the associations we make with certain words. What symbolism could you achieve if instead of the word ‘beautiful,’ you used the word, ‘angelic?’

You might have heard of the famous six-word story by Ernest Hemingway: For sale, baby shoes, never worn. It’s so spartan that its impact comes, mostly, not from the words themselves, but from the reader and their interpretation of them. The audience is left to imagine the story – and the sad circumstances that led to the placing of this tragic small ad.

Just like we're taught in school, all stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Remember that they don’t have to come in that order – starting at the end can often lead to a nice twist. And like Hemingway, you don’t have to expand upon them. Give your reader little hints that are just enough for them to fill in the gaps themselves. Make them work for it! You’ll free up your word count, and your reader will get to stretch their imagination.

It’s worth remembering though, in the words of George Orwell, “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Go with your gut, write something you’re passionate about, and create something you’re proud of... in fifty words.

This blog was originally published in 2013 and has been updated.

Robert Currie

Robert Currie received a 2012/13 New Writers Award. His first collection of short fiction, 'Lies and Concerns: Ten Short Stories', is available on Kindle. You can find out more about him at robcurrie.net.