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What is flash fiction ?

Flash exists all over the world, and is known by a variety of different names which are often used interchangeably: flash fiction, micro-fiction, nano-fiction, sudden fiction, short shorts…
Sometimes a piece of flash is just a paragraph, sometimes two pages. In terms of word count, magazines and competitions often ask for specific lengths, such as stories that are 100 words, 500 words and 750 words. After about 1000 words you’re getting towards a more traditional short story length. But measurement doesn’t tell us much. Here are a couple of other definitions of flash fiction:

I usually compare the novel to a mammal, be it wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish; the microstory to an insect (iridescent in the best cases).

(Luisa Valenzuela, taken from the introduction to Flash Fiction International edited by Thomas, Shapard and Merrill, Norton: 2015)

Writers who do short shorts need to be especially bold. They stake everything on a stroke of inventiveness.

(Irving Howe, introduction to Short Shorts, Bantam: 1999)
Britain has a National Flash Fiction Day and 25 June 2016 was the fifth annual celebration of the form. Flash is also a hugely popular form in Latin America and the USA, and there’s a national Flash Fiction Academy in China where it’s known as ‘smokelong’ (because it can be read in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette!).
The most famous flash fiction short story is supposedly by Ernest Hemingway, and it’s just six words:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Flash fiction has always been a form of experiment. There are stories based on musical or mathematical forms, that take the form of an invented index or a scientific report, and that condense a novel into a paragraph. Because flash is short, more can be risked – what might be tiresome or difficult in a longer piece is acceptable, enjoyable even, in something where the end is always in sight.
Although writing a piece of flash fiction won’t take as long as a novel – the average novel being at least 80,000 words – there’s nonetheless a huge amount of skill needed to create a successful piece of flash. How can you write something which satisfies the reader in, say, 500 words? It can be hard to create a plot and make anything happen; it can be hard to create convincing characters; indeed, it can be hard just setting the scene in so few words!
Some writers make use of traditional fiction techniques like character and basic elements of plot such as motivations, obstacles, and resolution. Other writers create something that’s more like a poem or the textual equivalent of a snapshot.
A Few Rules of Thumb for Writing Flash Fiction:

  • Just use one storyline: there’s no space for subplots.
  • Keep character numbers to a minimum – just one or two usually. You rarely need more.
  • Make every word count, especially the title.
  • Start late, leave early (the usual advice given to short story writers).
  • Start in the middle – there’s no time for build-up.
  • Have a strong ending. Lots of flash fiction stories fail because they feel like fragments of longer stories – it must feel complete. This is different from thinking you have to explain everything, but it mustn’t feel like you simply ran out of words.

Flash fiction isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth experimenting with and it can really hone your skills for longer literary works. Read lots before you start writing your own flash, to open your mind to its possibilities. A few good online journals include:
Smokelong Quarterly
Nano Fiction
Flash Fiction Magazine
But root around as there are many great online magazines.
If you fancy trying your hand at this diverse and entertaining form, you might want to aim for of the many competitions that are springing up. Established competitions such as the Bridport and Fish now have ‘flash’ categories, but here are a few deadlines coming up in the next month or so:
University of Aberdeen’s Special Collection Flash Fiction Competition: deadline 26 Oct 2016.
Word count: 400 (min) – 500 words (max). Stories must respond to one of four images from the archive. No entry fee, prize £50 book token.
Bare Fiction Magazine: deadline 31 Oct 2016
Max 500 words, £6 to enter, 1st prize £500.
Tears in the Fence Magazine Flash Fiction Competition: deadline 19 Nov 2016.
Max 400 words, £5 to enter, 1st prize £200.
Flash fiction has a very close cousin (almost an identical twin, in fact!) known as prose poetry. In my next blog post I’ll explore this form and discuss why poets might choose to omit line breaks – and whether prose poetry is really any different from flash fiction.

Posted by author: Vicky MacKenzie

5 thoughts on “What is flash fiction ?

  • I’ll be really interested in your prose poetry article as well as I’m only just beginning to see the potential of Flash Fiction, that it’s not just an abbreviated story but a form of creative prose in its own right.

  • I’m glad people are finding my post thought-provoking. Thinking about flash as a form in its own right, rather than an abbreviated short story, is really important – otherwise it seems to suffer in comparison, whereas it’s really an opportunity to do something a bit different. I hope some of you do give it a go!

  • My favourite flash fiction is: Drops by Etgar Keret in his flash fiction book, Miissing Kissinger. There is also a wonderful explication of flash fiction, using Drops as exemplar material, in Short Circuit, ed. Vanessa Gebbie, Salt.

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