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Flash What? A Quick Look at Flash Fiction

by Jason Gurley

If you're anything like me -- the traditional short story writer - then perhaps you've had the same reaction I exhibited when I first heard of something called "flash fiction." I stopped, stared, then turned to a writer friend of mine and said, "What?"

Flash fiction has been around for years, but has become increasingly prevalent in the literary community. Once the obscure little sister of the conventional 2,000 word story, flash fiction has shrugged off that obscurity to accept its new position: the intellectually challenging blurb. Dozens of literary publications, both print and online, have shifted their focus to include (or focus exclusively upon) flash fiction.

So what is it?

A Flash in the Pan?

In brief, flash fiction is a short form of storytelling. Defining it by the number of words or sentences or even pages required to tell a story, however, is impossible, for it differs from writer to writer, editor to editor. Some purists insist that it is a complete story told in less than 75 words; others claim 100 should be the maximum. For less-rigid flashers, anything under 1,000 words can be considered flash-worthy. And there are even a few who stretch their limits to 1,500 words.

Not only is the definition of flash fiction unstable, but the name is as well. Pamelyn Casto recounts its various titles in her article Flashes on the Meridian: Dazzled by Flash Fiction:

Other names for it include short-short stories, sudden, postcard, minute, furious, fast, quick, skinny, and micro fiction. In France such works are called nouvelles. In China this type of writing has several interesting names: little short story, pocket-size story, minute-long story, palm-sized story, and my personal favorite, the smoke-long story (just long enough to read while smoking a cigarette). What's in a name? That which we call flash fiction, by any other name would read as bright.

So we've now got a fairly blurry idea of what flash fiction is. The question now: How can one write it?

Flashes of Inspiration

Though the form is by definition extremely short, it is not a medium that tolerates fragemented storytelling. The challenge of flash fiction is to tell a complete story in which every word is absolutely essential, to peel away the frills and lace until you're left with nothing but the hard, clean-scraped core of a story.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that such bare-bones writing is less than elegant or beautiful. Sometimes beauty, or even inspiration, can be found in the simplest of things.

What makes a complete story? Lila Guzman, author of "Ask the Author", once told me that a complete story is "A beginning, a middle and end." How difficult is that?

When it comes to cramming such things into less space than the back of a playing card, it can be very difficult indeed.

The easiest way to write flash fiction, in my experience, is to let it all hang out. Throw yourself into your writing and crank out a beautiful story, regardless of the length. Then, take a good, long look at it.

Grab a red marker and slash out every adjective and adverb you can find. Your word count will diminish greatly. Run back through the story and read it aloud. Does it still make sense? You'll be amazed at how much emotion and description can be conveyed by a story devoid of descriptive words.

Now grab that red pen again. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there a definable plot? By this, go back to the comment made by Guzman. Can you identify the three simple parts of this story? Do you have a clear beginning? A strong centerpiece? A definitive ending? If you don't, you've got nothing more than a snippet of a larger story. Start editing.

  • Does your story make its point and drive it home, hard? Most flash fiction stories, due to their abrupt beginnings and sudden endings, leave the reader breathless when finished. Though not all stories need to be forceful to fit into this small genre, it is a trend that has followed flash throughout the years. Still, if your story doesn't have that hard-hitting theme and end by smacking into a wall, don't worry; it's not a necessity.

  • Is every word absolutely essential to the story? Or have you left unnecessary sentences here and there, or maybe a few unneeded descriptives? "The quick brown dog jumped over the lazy fox" is a vivid way of stating the facts, but think of it this way: You're writing this story from margin to margin. Those margins are solid walls -- there's no going past them. Give yourself five lines, or ten if you're less daring, and consider the first and last line your floor and ceiling. To tell your story, you've got to make the most of the space. "The dog jumped over the fox" leaves you with much more room to move forward, to expand.

Once you've answered these three questions, you're ready to move on to the next step: submitting your work. There are many online publications that worship flash fiction. There are also many print magazines that accept the genre. Here are a few market listings that may help you in your search:

Flash Fiction Online
http://www.flashfictiononline.com/

The Green Tricycle
http://greentricycle.com/main/guidelines.html

SmokeLong Quarterly
http://smokelong.com/

The Vestal Review
http://www.vestalreview.net/

Other Resources:

Writing Flash Fiction, by G.W. Thomas
http://www.fictionfactor.com/guests/flashfiction.html

Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories.
Edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. Layton, Utah: Gibbes M. Smith, Inc., 1986.

Sudden Fiction (Continued): 60 New Short-Short Stories.
Edited by Robert Shapard, James Thomas, 1996.

Sudden Fiction International: 60 Short-Short Stories.
Edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard. New York-London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes.
Roberta Allen. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1997.

Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories.
Edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, & Tom Hazuka. New York-London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

Related Articles:

The Flash Fiction Market, by C.M. Saunders
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/flashmarkets.shtml

Flashes of Brilliance, by S. Joan Popek
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/popek.shtml

Flashes On The Meridian: Dazzled by Flash Fiction, by Pamelyn Casto
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/casto.shtml

Copyright © 2000 Jason Gurley
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Jason Gurley lives and writes in Nevada. His fiction has appeared in The Mississippi Review, The Rio Grande Review, and The Paumanok Review, among others. He is the author of Close Program and a collection of short stories from Pixel Press. Visit his blog: http://eleanorwitt.com/.

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