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How I Craft Very Short Fiction

December 13th, 2019

What an honour to win a Writers Bureau prize for my very short story, “That Old Familiar Smile”. The Bureau has asked me to write about crafting very short fiction. Suddenly I am an expert?

I like the idea of achieving a complete narrative arc in less than 500 words. Just like a novel, it has to have a beginning, middle and an end but not one word can be wasted.  Here’s how I do it.

It started with a local writing group. When we met, we had three themes, five minutes to think and choose one, then just 20 minutes to write the story. Afterwards we read them out. Sometimes I wrote rubbish and sometimes, something quite good, if a bit rough.  The theme could be a proverb, a song title or a random phrase. Quick thinking produces a first line or, more challengingly, a last line.

The first line is vital. I had to introduce my protagonist and put her into a place and time. In my story, the first sentence read, “Marigold Greensward was happy to admit she did not fit in.” I hoped the name sounded old-fashioned and that it prepared my readers to find out that she might be a witch.

Given the title “That Old Familiar Smile”, I knew that the last line would be about the vanishing smile of a witch’s old familiar (her cat). It was a neat inversion of the title and a nice play on the word familiar.

I just wrote to find out how I got there. I do not really know how I wrote the middle.  My protagonist and I set off together on a random walk hoping to reach the last line I had first thought of.

Writing fast, against the clock, helps keep the story short.

With a story of sorts drafted, I edited ruthlessly. Every word must count. I zapped those extra adjectives, adverbs and vague modifiers. Out went conjunctions in favour of short sentences.

A poet friend has compared flash fiction to poetry. It’s about getting just the right word. But I think his point establishes something else. The last line in flash fiction is crucial. It has to round off the story and satisfy the reader. It is the only place to put the twist. Often it is akin to the punch line of a joke. I don’t know why but successful last lines need rhythm. In my first draft, the protagonist’s name was Jane. The last few words read, “…empty of all but the vanishing smile of Jane’s old familiar.” It just didn’t work until I renamed her Marigold. Three syllables did the trick and the last phrase read, “… empty of all but the vanishing smile of Marigold’s old familiar.” It just sounded right when read aloud. When I went back to change her name in the first sentence, Marigold suited her better.



David Higham’s first career was in the Royal Navy as a submariner.  He then became a litigation lawyer, ending his working life as an academic. Some of his professional articles were published.  On retirement, he took up the Writer Bureau’s Comprehensive Writing Course, which opened a new world of writing groups and writing for pleasure (and very occasionally money). David does not have a novel in him but has had some success and publication with travel and flash fiction writing.

David has returned to the sea, coxing Cornish Pilot Gigs in the Solent close to where he lives. He and his wife travel as much as they can and David writes a travel blog at www.theancienttraveller.com  .

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