Thursday, April 4, 2013

How to Write a Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Story: Part 1: Fish Out of Water

Sci-fi Version: "For sale: Space suit. Never worn."
How hard could it be to write flash fiction!? After all, it only has to be 500 words long. You could get 500 words out of a detailed grocery list or an angry Facebook post calling for genetically modified undersea pothole relief. (Or calling for an end to it.)

True, writing 500 words is not hard. But what makes a story a story? What elevates your 500 words from the realm of the vignette or scene or sketch to the level of an actual short story? A reader can tell the difference between a paragraph and a piece of fiction -- there’s something about a story that feels complete, finished, whole, no matter how short it is.

This something is conflict. Conflict can be a fistfight or an internal battle, but either way it is struggle -- the struggle to move, either physically or emotionally, from point A to point B. So a story is a fight to move, no matter how minute the obstacle and no matter how infinitesimal the motion. That’s what makes it whole.

Conflict can be tricky to set up even in a long form short story, and sci-fi conflict can be even more tricky. You may find yourself imagining world-building that takes chapters, alien races that must be described in glorious detail, histories of space battles with implications that span thousands of years. The idea of condensing it into the space of 500 words seems laughable. But here are three ways you can ignite your story in a very tiny space, and a few secrets to help you get it firing immediately. (Parts 2 and 3 are linked below.)


When sci-fi works best, the most alien of situations relate to very familiar human experiences. One category of conflict that is instantly relatable and needs very little wordy explanation is the fish out of water.

Get your jungle character into this neighborhood.
Generating this story is easy: Take a character and place him in circumstances that are opposite what he’s used to.

On the most obvious level, this can be physical. Take a character who’s used to the desert and put him on a snowy planet. Take a character who breathes water and put him on a mountain (literally the fish out of water). A city dweller in the country, a nocturnal person forced out in the day, a cave dweller on the plains. Instant conflict, just add physical discomfort, the urgent need to adapt, survive, on a primal level.

Goodbye, city life! 
On another level, this shift in circumstances might have less to do with setting and the fear of death, and more to do with the character’s identity and the fear of discovery. Maybe this is a man living as a woman, a child in a man’s body, a corporate drone living like a king on a tropical island. (Apparently Tom Hanks has a gift for portraying the fish out of water on film!) Again you have immediate and impending doom in the threat of people finding out -- any near escape would give you a chunk of conflict just the right size for a story in micro.

Your character misses his lonely hermitage.
Perhaps the most interesting way to do this type of conflict is on an ideological level. A character accustomed to freedom is in chains, a character accustomed to oppression is suddenly free, a character who lives in a ruggedly individualistic society finds himself on a commune, a character from a caste system finds himself in an egalitarian world. Here the character’s understanding must shift in some significant way, giving way to pressure from his new surroundings, or coming to a new understanding based on this new context.

Science fiction or speculative fiction is perfect for this type of set-up. Time travel, interplanetary travel, alien species, and the pervasive themes of exploration and discovery lead to many of these juxtapositions -- showing a moment of the resulting conflict can be just enough story to fill up a short short.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about strategy #2: Find Three Parts of the Peak.

This spring, I am judging the Fly-By Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Contest, a writing contest to benefit Up Center Books. Writers in the Hampton Roads area will submit their best science-fiction-themed flash fiction to be judged first by instructors at The Muse Writing Center and then by me. Winners will win a writing class at The Muse, a nifty prize basket, and will share the microphone with me at the launch of the paperback edition of Shine Shine Shine, on July 10th, at Up Center Books. To encourage college students and adult writers who are tackling this challenge, and to give some guidance and support to teachers and parents who may be working with a younger child, I created this three part guide to explain a few (of many!) possible ways to approach writing a sci-fi short.


  1. Wonderful! And when I was reading it I thought of all the books that I have read and loved that have been based on the fish out of water. It's like Joseph Campbell's hero quest - going where there is no map. Can't wait for parts 2 and 3!

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