No Vignettes: Plot in Flash Fiction


“At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, apart from the word length, the key factor with Flash Fiction is it has all the elements of a traditional self-contained short story, including a beginning, a middle and an end, even if some aspects may be implied.  Flash Fiction is NOT an extract or vignette from a longer story.” – Grievous Angel

Chances are, if you’ve ever scoured the internet for a Flash Fiction publisher, you’ve seen some variation on this in their submission guidelines.  Flash Fiction Online and Freeze Frame Fiction say much the same thing.

So what does it mean, and how can you avoid making this mistake?

Let’s start by talking about basic plot structure and then see how we can apply it to Flash.  Your basic plot has seven points:

I don’t know about you, but I’m already lost.  Hey, Pixar, can you break this down for us?

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. And ever since that day___.

Much better.

So now that we’ve got our outline, let’s talk about vignettes.  A vignette is a day-in-the-life scene that covers your first two plot points. Since we’re talking about Pixar I’m going to use WALL-E as my example.  A vignette would be telling a beautiful, evocative story about a lonely little robot on an abandoned wasteland cleaning up trash while the other robots rusted away.

Now, that’s an interesting idea, but if you’ve seen the rest of the movie, it’s not nearly as interesting as the day EVE lands – after which point you get your story.  And that’s the problem with vignettes: they have no conflict, no character arc.  Publishers aren’t interested in your thought-experiments, they want a story.

Now, as you’ve probably guessed, the seven point plot structure is redundant and better suited to novels than flash.  What you really need is to get back to basics:

The beginning sets up the story.  The middle complicates it.   The end resolves it.  Put your hero in a tree, throw rocks at him, and get him out. – David Trottier

Getting back to WALL-E, you don’t have room in a Flash Fiction piece to tell the whole movie.  But there are several stories within WALL-E that would make excellent Flash pieces.  You could tell the first act, where WALL-E and EVE meet and end up flying off to make contact with the humans.  Or you could tell the last act, if you flip it to the perspective of the Captain who must decide whether to help WALL-E get the humans home or continue letting them atrophy in perpetual comfort.  You could even tell the story of the little repair droid who spends the entire movie trying to fix a light on the ship, if you really want to get into those DVD extras.

See what I mean?

For more on plot structure check out: The Story Spine: Pixar’s 4th Rule of Storytelling.


3 thoughts on “No Vignettes: Plot in Flash Fiction

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