What the Hell is Flash Fiction?

In Which Our Heroine Encounters an English Teacher

So, here I am at a social event — I know, hard to believe, isn’t it? (Yes, once in awhile you can find me out and about with real people. It happens.) A woman I hadn’t seen in a long time approached me and we started chatting about this and that, and she asks me if I’m still doing “my little writing thing”. (I may have gritted my teeth here.) I realize her interest because I know she’s an English teacher, although I don’t know the grade level she teaches or even if she actively teaches anymore. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

“So, are you still doing your little writing thing?”

“Why yes, indeed I am.”

“How nice. How’s that going?”

“Quite well, actually. I’ve just released my first collection of flash fiction.”

“Oh, really? You mean, like a book?”

“Yes. Exactly like a book.”

“What is flash fiction?”

Whaaaa?

This floored me. Granted, my school days are far behind me, and I can’t remember if we ever covered a unit on flash fiction, but that was a looooong time ago and I would think, with the resurgence of the popularity of flash fiction, an English teacher would have some clue about it. I explained as best I could, and then it occurred to me there may be a lot of people out there who were not quite sure about the definition of flash.

Flash fiction, as defined by Wikipedia, is “fiction of extreme brevity”, although the entry goes on to say there really is no “definitive” description of flash fiction. To further confuse things, flash is also known by a number of different monikers — postcard fiction, micro-fiction, sudden fiction, nouvelles, smoke-long, prosetry, short shorts (not to be confused with the “short shorts” fashion garment of the 70s) and minute fiction.

These are a different kind of short shorts.

Generally speaking, fiction of less than 1500 words is thought of as flash, although the word count can vary. I’ve seen flash in a little as six words — don’t make me quote Ernest Hemingway here, we’ve seen it a million times — and some flash fiction appears in 55 words, 100 words, etc.

What makes flash so unique is within the parameters of word count, the writer presents a complete story. There’s a beginning, middle and an end; a protagonist, conflict and resolution. However, flash fiction is limited by word count, so some of these elements are hinted at or left to the reader to contemplate rather than spelled out in detail.

Flash fiction pushes the boundaries in a number of ways. The word count forces both the writer and the reader to work a bit harder. The writer has to convey an idea, a situation, a story by choosing not just the right words, but the perfect words in order to properly communicate their tale. A reader has to do his/her part by paying close attention to not only the the word choice, but the concept and reason behind them and extrapolate from there. To me, it’s a much more intimate writer/reader relationship. It’s a matter of trust. I, the writer, am going to trust you, the reader, to the part of the story I’m not telling. You, the reader, are trusting me, the writer, to give you the words so you can do that.

Inconceivable! I don't think that word means what you think it means.

This concept applies to all flash fiction, even the esoteric type that reads more like poetry or stream-of-consciousness. Indeed, some flash fiction will resemble more poetry than prose. The lines are not definitive, remember, and so the writer has room to play.

This is what makes flash look easy when in fact, it is probably one of the most challenging disciplines in writing. You can hide nothing when it comes to writing flash. I have compared it to wearing spandex — every bump, lump and stray hair shows. You have to be clean, concise and brief. You don’t have the space or the time to dump backstory, explain character or detail a setting. You must tell your story in as few words as possible, and trust the reader to handle the rest.

Flash fiction is a great exercise for writers, because it will teach you the value of word choice and how to set a scene or tell a story by showing. Even within its strict parameters of word count, there is a world of creativity just waiting to be tapped. It seems easy, but it is not. However, it is a lot of fun to write, and a total rush when you pull it off successfully.

My answer to the English teacher? I sold her a copy of my book. :)

Find “Not Nice and Other Understatements” at Amazon and now at Smashwords in any format you desire! Autographed copies are still available through the link on this page. Spread the word! And thanks for all of your support!

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