A Study in Brevity: Crafting Flash Fiction & Syllabic Poetry

Written by Colleen Chesebro

An avid reader, Colleen M. Chesebro rekindled her love of writing poetry after years spent working in the accounting industry. These days, she loves crafting syllabic poetry, flash fiction, and creative fiction and nonfiction. In addition to poetry books, Chesebro’s publishing career includes participation in various anthologies featuring short stories, flash fiction, and poetry. She’s an avid supporter of her writing community on TankaTuesday.com by organizing and sponsoring a weekly syllabic poetry challenge, called #TankaTuesday, where participants experiment with traditional and current forms of Japanese and American syllabic poetry. Join us for #TankaTuesday! Chesebro is an assistant editor of The Congress of the Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology & Gitty Up Press, a micro-press founded by Charli Mills and Carrot Ranch. In January 2022, Colleen founded Unicorn Cats Publishing Services to assist poets and authors in creating eBooks and print books for publication. In addition, she creates affordable book covers for Kindle and print books. Chesebro lives in the house of her dreams in mid-Michigan surrounded by the Great Lakes with her husband and two (unicorn) cats, Chloe & Sophie.

August 26, 2022

There is one thing that flash fiction and syllabic poetry have in common and that’s the brevity of words. Because we’re limited by the number of words (or syllables in syllabic poetry) we must choose concise words to convey our meaning.

I call these words figurative language. I use the same literary devices when writing flash fiction as I do when writing syllabic poetry.

Figurative Language

Figurative language should enhance the meaning of your prose and poetry by making connections that allow the reader to infer their own meaning. Here are a few literary devices that will strengthen your writing:

Analogy: This is when you compare similar attributes shared by separate things or ideas. You do this by using a simile or metaphor.

EX: A coyote running across the arid desert after its prey; the base runner dashed for home plate, kicking up dust in his haste.

A simile is when you compare things that are different. Usually the words, like or as, are used.

EX: A happy memory is like an old friend who welcomes you home when you need it most.

A metaphor implies a comparison between two different things. You don’t use the words like or as, in this case.

EX: He stinks of infidelity. This doesn’t mean there’s an odor. Instead, the sentence implies the guy is a cheater. This creates a visual image in your mind of a person who is disloyal.

Irony: Choosing words to hint at the opposite of their usual meaning. The difference between appearance and reality.

EX: The whipped butter felt as soft as a block of ice. Clearly, in this case, looks can be deceiving.

Personification: Assigning a human trait to something not human. EX: The wind whispered through the dry grasses. The wind can’t whisper because that is a human trait. Yet, the description gives the reader a sensory image they won’t forget.

Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds, such as when two or more words close in proximity, repeat the same vowel sound, without repeating consonants; sometimes called vowel rhyme.

EX: Sally sells seashells beside the seashore (repetition of the short e and long e sounds).

Alliteration: Words that start with the same sound (not just the same letter) used in repetition in a series of words within a phrase or verse line. Usually, the sound is a consonant, and the words are not next to each other. Alliteration does not depend on letters but on sounds—think tongue twisters!

EX: Kim came home to clean the chaos in her closet. (Kim came, is dependent on the same sound, not the consonant letter it begins with).

(From: Chesebro, Colleen M., Word Craft: Prose & Poetry: The Art of Crafting Syllabic Poetry (pp. 15-16). Kindle Edition).

So let’s apply those literary devices to writing syllabic poetry. Are you new to crafting syllabic poetry and don’t know how to start? Let me show you two syllabic poetry forms to get you started on your poetry writing journey.

Let’s start with an American form, the cinquain. The cinquain is a five-line, non-rhyming poem featuring a syllable structure of 2-4-6-8-2. Choose words that create drama that builds into the fourth line. The turn occurs on line five, the most important line. This is where you change your focus away from the drama in some interesting way. Cinquain poems need a title.

Use a syllable counter as you compose your poetry. I use the Syllable Counter at https://www.traveldailylife.com/syllables/. See my cinquain example below:

Day Dawns

pink blush—
fairy makeup
smudges morning’s gray clouds
dew sparkles against the grasses

© Colleen M. Chesebro

In the cinquain above, I described a morning sunrise. True to the form, I pivoted in line five. My last two-syllables are where I turned away from the beauty of the scene and added the word “thunder.” This gives a hint that not everything is as it seems in the idyllic scene I described.

“Pink blush—fairy makeup” is personification. I’ve assigned human traits to the color of the morning sky.

If Japanese poetry intrigues you, start with the haiku. Haiku consists of three lines following the short-long-short, 3-5-3, 2-3-2, (5-7-5 traditional) syllable count. Usually your haiku should contain approximately twelve syllables. We write haiku about nature, the seasons, a beautiful moment in nature, an emotional experience while in nature, or change. Haiku are untitled, and this form requires a Kigo (season word). Haiku does not rhyme. Do not use metaphors or similes in haiku.

(When you’re first learning how to write haiku, feel free to use the 5-7-5 syllable structure until you’re ready to embrace the shorter formats.)

When we write haiku, we’re sharing an encounter between nature and ourselves as a human. We describe our experience at that exact moment. These are the moments that stand out and grab our attention in unexpected ways. Remember, haiku are untitled.

clouds stitched together
against the blue cloth of sky
solstice heat rises

© Colleen M. Chesebro

In the haiku above, I describe the clouds, and how they look against a blue sky. That’s personification! Notice my choice of words. I also used a kigo or season word, solstice heat which we know occurs in summer. Blue cloth of sky wasn’t enough to define a season because we could describe the sky in those terms any season of the year.

Break your haiku into two separate word images:

lines one and two: clouds stitched together against the blue cloth of sky

lines two and three: against the blue cloth of sky, solstice heat rises

This is a great way to check your haiku when you’ve finished writing. Combine the first and second line of your haiku. Does a mental image appear? In this example, you can see the clouds contrast the color of the blue sky. Remember the brevity of words.

However, when you take the second and third line and combine them, you receive another mental image. Now you see the solstice heat shimmers against the blue sky. The summer solstice occurs in June.

The idea in crafting haiku is to write about two contrasting or somehow similar images, and to connect them in unusual ways. Haiku are all about images. How does the haiku make you feel? Have you created emotion without telling your reader how to feel?

That’s it! You’re ready to craft syllabic poetry! Join me for #TankaTuesday on wordcraftpoetry.com.

Copyright © 2022 Colleen M. Chesebro – All rights reserved.

Colleen M. Chesebro lives in East Lansing, Michigan in the United States.

Colleen grew up in a large city in the Midwest. Keen on making her own way in the world, she joined the United States Air Force after graduation to tour the world and find herself. To this day, that search continues.

Today, she’s a Michigan Poet who loves crafting syllabic poetry, flash fiction, and creative fiction and nonfiction. Colleen sponsors a weekly poetry challenge, called #TankaTuesday, on wordcraftpoetry.com, where poets learn how to create traditional and modern forms of syllabic poetry.

Colleen created Word Craft Poetry as an uplifting community where poets can learn the basics of writing Japanese and American syllabic poetry by sharing their own poetic inspiration on their blogs through the challenge written in one of the following forms: haiku, senryu, haiga, tanka, gogyohka, haibun, tanka prose, renga, solo renga, cinquain, and its variations, Etheree, nonet, shadorma, Badger’s Hexastich, and Abhanga. Poets receive positive feedback from their peers, who inspire each other to stretch their creativity.

When she’s not writing poetry or crafting short stories, you’ll find Colleen digging in her garden, or playing with her two unicorn cats, Chloe & Sophie, or spending time with her husband and friends. Most days you can find her writing poetry on wordcraftpoetry.com, or preparing books for publication at Unicorn Cats Publishing Services.

You can follow Colleen’s blog at Word Craft Poetry and follow her on Twitter at @ColleenChesebro.

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  1. robbiesinspiration

    HI Colleen, I love both your examples of personification. Once of the best books I’ve read with regards to personification is Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Simply stunning descriptions.

    • Colleen Chesebro: WordCraftPoetry

      I read that book so many years ago. I must reread it and truly enjoy those descriptions again. Thanks, Robbie. ????

  2. ellenbest24

    An extremely informative post. Many of your examples sit comfortably in the novel where the Crawdads sing. Her words a
    Paint the landscape like waterborne ink.

    • Colleen Chesebro: WordCraftPoetry

      I love that poetic language, Ellen. I’ve been told such language bogs a novel down. Not to me. It adds to the story giving me a deeper connection to the setting and characters.

      • ellenbest24

        I agree, it is best not over done, but in the Crawdads with the North Carolinna accent, the singsong voices it was not forced or overworked. You can tell I loved the book. I may not like the film though, ( spaeulation) I am worried they will lose the atmosphere, and just hammer the story into a different shape.

      • Colleen Chesebro: WordCraftPoetry

        That’s the problem with films, I think. Let’s hope they keep the singsong language intact.

      • ellenbest24


  3. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    Hi Colleen.
    There may be more than one thing that flash fiction and syllabic poetry have in common, but yes, the restrictions of words or syllables compel careful word choice which makes for more compelling results. I am convinced that these restrictions make for better writing, but maybe that’s an excuse for not being able to produce more than 99 words now and again. I find haiku the most challenging to write, requiring a great deal of effort to get to those few spare lines. I see there has been some good discussion as to haiku “rules” at your site, and while I am a bit of a rule bender, I agree that 17 syllables does not a haiku make. I like haiku and related forms that make me say Ah, Aah, or Ha! Anyway, thanks for an awe-some article here at the Saloon!

    • pedometergeek

      D, as a writer of haiku, I hope for that Aha! moment. It doesn’t mean that I always achieve it. It is the two-part (phrase/fragment) working of the poem that often produces the turn as Colleen describes it. Several years ago, I stopped counting syllables when I write haiku and that, for me, has made all the difference. My haiku seem less forced and more to say what I am trying to express. That’s one of the reasons I like The Haiku Foundation’s website. There is always a weekly prompt for their column, and it takes me out of my comfort zone and still writing. For what it is worth….nan

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        Yes, that fulcrum of a middle line is key. I’ll have to investigate that Haiku Foundation site.

      • pedometergeek

        and the 99-word prompts? I write what I want to get the story I want, and then I start editing out words to get to the proper length. It isn’t always easy, is it? To get our story across in such a short form?
        At a writer’s group I used to attend, I mentioned Carrot Ranch and its prompts and parameters. One of the other writers tried it, but said she couldn’t stay within the 99 words (no more, no less), and wrote much more. I thought to myself that’s part of the discipline; it requires editing (cutting words out, adding one here) to achieve it. We all know it can be done; the Word Wranglers do it every week (and well, too).

      • Colleen Chesebro: WordCraftPoetry

        Absolutely! In fact, Charli teaches the 99-word story in her creative writing classes where she teaches. My writing improved once I started using this technique.

    • Colleen Chesebro: WordCraftPoetry

      Thanks for reading D. I can recommend some helpful books: The Haiku Handbook, by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter; and Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, by Lee Gurga with Charles Trumbull. The Graceguts site (Nahaiwritmo linked) https://www.graceguts.com/haiku-and-senryu is another source I frequent. I think we should all do our research. I know I will be a student of Japanese poetry for a long time to come.

  4. Anne Goodwin

    Great post, Colleen, I love your examples, so helpful, thanks.

  5. Liz H

    Another gem from the crown of the faery queen! Thank you!

  6. Rebecca Budd

    An excellent discussion, Colleen, I have bookmarked The Haiku Foundation and the Syllable counter.

  7. denmaniacs4

    Always great information, Colleen…and always a reminder as I drift into poetic chaos…

    • Colleen Chesebro: WordCraftPoetry

      Thanks so much. I’m glad you enjoyed. And enjoy that slow drift into poetic chaos. LOL!

  8. Norah

    I enjoyed your post and its examples of poetry, Colleen. Figurative language can be beautiful. I love it when it makes me stop and appreciate a new way of looking at things.

    • Colleen Chesebro: WordCraftPoetry

      I agree, Norah. That imagery brings our stories and poetry alive. How dull reading would be without these literary devices. ????

      • Norah

        Dull indeed.

  9. Eugenia

    This is very helpful, Colleen. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. ????

  10. Smitha V

    Thank you for this post,Colleen. You make it so easy to understand.

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