I’ve been writing dark flash fiction since 2011, when I entered a piece in a local contest and won it.

It was a totally unexpected honor, and I might have been addicted to the flash fiction format and light-horror genre combination just for that. But as part of the contest, I had the opportunity to read my piece at a Halloween event sponsored by the writing group.

About 20 people showed up at Historic Hannastown, where we gathered in one of the preserved log cabins from the late 18th century. It was a wonderful setting, and in the fall – with dank air and musty, wet autumn leaves – it was perfect for scary stories.

As the piece I was reading reached its climax, a woman in the audience gasped. I’ll never forget that. It’s so powerful when you can reach a person on an emotional level that’s so evocative, their reactions are involuntary. It’s rare, and it’s addicting.

For better or for worse, that reaction as much as anything is what has determined my genre of choice for these last few years. (I have also spent some time doing humor, but I feel that my flash fiction is where much more of my talent lies.)

I just finished a piece for a contest last week. My previous pieces were focused on plot, setting and character arc, as you might expect. I always write with attention to word choice, but I really wanted to “up my game” with this piece, and I ended up doing some pretty serious sentence-level editing.

Here are a few rules I’ve been using to stretch my sentences, and make all my words work a little harder.

1. What is the idea in this sentence? Is the idea a) moving the story forward? b) dwelling on a point that needs to be dwelt upon?

Every sentence should have a purpose. Think about the sentence in front of you, and about the reader experience. Do you want your reader to linger a bit here and notice things? Are you wanting to create a feeling of being rushed? Of being still? Does the idea of your sentence promote what you want the reader to be feeling in this moment of your story? Take note of the onomatopoeia of not just the individual words, but of the sentence.

For instance, in my contest story, a character had been getting settled in her house for the evening, but then I started a new paragraph with “The power went out.” My husband’s comment was that it seemed awfully abrupt. But that’s exactly how it happens, isn’t it? It’s a short sentence. It conveys the point, but it happens very quickly. No one expects the power to go out. It happens out of nowhere. That’s what I wanted the reader to experience.

2. Has the idea been expressed before? Is there a point to having this idea?

Check your sentences to make sure that you’re not expressing the same – or similar – idea in sentences back-to-back. Your ideas should be connected, but individual. If you find that a sentence has too much in common with the ones around it, see how the story works if you just delete it. If there’s a minor, necessary idea that the sentence conveys, consider including it in one of the surrounding sentences. Just because an idea is complete in itself doesn’t mean that it is necessary to the whole story. If it can be gotten rid of, get rid of it.

3. Is it expressed beautifully? Is it poetic? Is it lush or sparse where it needs to be? It should echo the tone of the plot and setting.

For example, here is the sentence I originally started my piece with: “The voices of her friends repeated themselves generically in her head”

Here is the sentence that I ended up with: “The voices of her friends spun a hollow cloud of murmuring.”

I spent about a half hour revising that sentence, finding just the right words to express the confusion and apathy that my character was feeling. Was I successful? I have no idea, but when I finally found the right words, I felt it. The bad news is that it takes time. The good news is that your reader will sense the level of quality that you’re producing.

I think of flash fiction as a kind of poetry. I think that approach works well with this genre. But I think it could be useful with longer fiction as well – you still want your reader to come away feeling fulfilled and stimulated. As you write your sentences consider:

a) Cadence of the words. Literally, look at the stress of the syllables. Do they work together to make the story flow evenly if that’s the feel of the story? If this part of the story is abrupt, are the words short and choppy? Use the thesaurus and find the word that fits the idea-sound of this part of the story.

b) Word sound. Look at alliteration if you want to draw attention to a specific detail. (Don’t go overboard. Two-word alliteration is often enough to draw the reader’s eye/ear.) Look at assonance. For a wide open feeling, choose long vowels. For a sharper sound, choose short vowels. Repeat vowel sounds throughout a sentence, in two or three words, to sustain that feeling. Assonance is much more subtle than alliteration.

c) Use approximate rhyme where appropriate and when it can help drive home a point. Decide where you want the reader’s attention, and use sparingly.

4. Is the connotation of the words correct?

Go through all of your words and understand exactly how the word will be understood. A good example is the word “frisked” I almost used, in describing my MC’s action of rapidly searching a dresser: “She frisked the dresser…” I liked the word and enjoyed the unorthodox use of it, especially because the word itself is so fast and choppy, with the “sk” sound and its single syllable.

However, upon running it past my writer’s group, it was “vetoed” by several people because the word is so closely associated with law-enforcement. Sure, it was a fun use of the word, but the connotation would take the reader out of the story and into a completely different setting – something you never want to do.

5. Read the story aloud to see how it works.

For many readers, they will hear your story through their internal voice, reading it and “hearing” it as well. Reading your story aloud provides you with a nice final edit. If you stumble over words, or if the phrasing sounds awkward, you notice it during this phase. It will help you realize where your story is fast and where it lingers. Dialogue and short sentences and words will make your story go faster; description / exposition and longer words will slow it down

I’m planning on using these five rules as a kind of checklist as I do sentence-level editing for future work. For me, the editing process at this level is enjoyable. I am – as most writers are – obsessed with words. This part of the process was part game and part creation, which made it delicious and enchanting.

If you have any tips for sentence-level editing, please feel free to share in the comments. I would love to see what others are using.

(Thanks to Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan for linking to my blog over at That’s All She Wrote. Check out her post from last week regarding her writing process.)