Writing Great Flash Fiction

by Mike Shea on 25 June 2012

Flash fiction, small focused stories running usually less than three hundred words, have a great place in Dungeons and Dragons. Whether used as pieces of read-aloud text, adventure summaries, or emailed stories to keep your group engaged between sessions, flash fiction is a great tool for D&D DMs. Today we're going to take a look at some tips for writing fantastic, gripping, and useful flash fiction.

Three uses for flash fiction

There are numerous places flash fiction helps us in our D&D games but we're going to focus down to three.

First, flash fiction works very well for Flavor text descriptions of rooms, areas, NPCs, objects, and scenes. Each of these has a clear focus and idea that we can tell in as few words as needed. In general, try to keep these bits of flavor down to one to three sentences. Focus on only the most important elements needed.

Flash fiction also works well for between-game emails. Beyond simple game summaries, the obvious choice, we can also use flash fiction to give our players a point of view away from their characters. Focus the fiction on an interesting NPC they might know or introduce a villain early they have yet to meet. Use flash fiction to show how the world moves on regardless of the PCs' place in it.

Flash fiction can also be very helpful for introductory game summaries. Like other examples, we can use flash fiction to keep our PCs focused on the most important elements of the campaign up to this point. It helps remind players where things stand and keeps them focused on the options currently available to them.

Your two best sources for writing

Two books stand above all others when it comes to excellent writing. The first is the venerable Strunk and White's Elements of Style. The other is Stephen King's On Writing. Both of these books will help you in all forms of writing including something as short as flash fiction. If you read any books to help you write, these are the two to choose.

Now, as we look particularly at writing flash fiction, a few tips stand out.

Keep to the point

When writing fiction under three hundred words, you must keep a clear eye on the main points you want to make. Before you begin your flash fiction, jot down the most important things you want this bit of fiction to reveal. When writing between-game stories in email, think clearly about what you want your players to learn from it. Are you introducing a new character? Are you showing a bit of backstory? Are you revealing a parallel journey to those taken by the PCs?

As you answer questions like these, understand the main points you want your players to remember and use those as the key focal points around which the whole short work revolves.

Focus your words

When writing your flash fiction, every word matters. Use only those words which push forward the main points you want to make. Don't meander about, telling every little detail. Use one or two words that spark the vast imaginations of your players and move on to the important details. Use as few words as possible to make the points you want to make.

Revise and rewrite

When you're done, don't just hit save or send. Revise and rewrite. Figure out how to cut that fourteen word sentence down to seven. Look back over every sentence you have written and decide if it reinforces your primary purpose or not. Keep that focus tight as you edit your words.

An example: Glyphimor and Orcus

Glyphimhor, the Balor General of Orcusgate, stepped outside of his capital city and took flight over the Plains of Hunger. All around demons and undead cowered in his shadow, hoping to avoid the wrath of Orcus's champion.

The Balor General slammed onto the ground, cracking the ancient stone of packed bone dust under his powerful hooves. The two Molydeus that guarded Everlost's front door stepped back.

He walked through Everlost, listening to the screaming from below and hearing the whispers of Orcus's personal servants as he entered the throne room. On the floor lay the massive primordial construct, Timesus the Black Star. Just looking at it made Glyphimhor nervous.

"Marvelous, isn't he," spoke the Prince of Undeath. Glyphimhor wasn't sure he agreed with his lord.

"Elder Etharix is dead," said Glyphimhor. "Killed during a ritual in Lash Embarer by the Shieldbashers. They apparently disrupted the Soulgrinder as well. We lost track of them after that."

"I know," said Orcus. "Gavix told me." Glyphimhor hated the Glabrezou, Orcus's ambassador and pet. He had hoped the Shieldbashers would have cut off his dog head in Lash Embarer. Orcus stood and walked over to Glpyhimhor. As massive as the Balor General was, his master still towered over him.

"It matters not. All is in hand." Orcus laughed. Glyphimhor didn't like the ease with which Orcus spoke of these matters. The slaying of his highest priest should not come so easily. Orcus seemed to see this in Glyphimhor's eyes. "The human gamblers have an expression," said Orcus. "When their money grows thin but they have a good hand of cards. They call it going 'all in'. We're going all in on this, Glyphimhor. We cannot turn back and what happens from here on out cannot stop what we have put in motion. In just a few days, Etharix's death will not matter at all."

"Nor will mine, I suppose," said Glyphimhor. Orcus smiled at him.

"Now you begin to understand. Let me show you what commitment looks like."

"I called you here to do something," said Orcus as he walked over to a massive stone altar stained a deep red from centuries of bloodletting. "Something none of the others dare to do. Only you have the strength and will to do it." Orcus pointed down to Glyphimhor's vorpal blade. Orcus placed his left forearm on the altar. For the first time in his long life, Glyphimhor understood what fear felt like.

"Do it."

The above bit of flash fiction isn't perfect but it serves as an example. It's too long, for one, and probably has quite a few needless words that get away from its main points.

The main intent of the fiction above, sent in an email to the players of the Shieldbashers late in the epic tier of our campaign, showed that Orcus had a plan and introduced Glyphimor, Orcus's balor general. It gives a good flavor for the world of Thanatos and shows the players what Orcus knows and doesn't know of their actions. It also leaves the party with a great sense of mystery. Why would Orcus have his general cut off his hand? That's a pretty big mystery and it plays strongly into the rest of the story.

The flash fiction helps reinforce all of these bits of story, clarifies what should be clarified and obscures what is best left a mystery. Again, it's not perfect, but it serves. This is just one example of the great many uses for flash fiction in your DM's toolbox.

If you enjoyed this article, please take a look at Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games. Need good minis? Pick up some D&D Miniatures from Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.

Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.