Sunday, 5 June 2011

Flash fiction

Flash fiction: it’s a clever name, sounding, well, flashy – modern, fast, bright, illuminating, and above all, over very quickly. Why flash fiction is having its moment right now is not an interesting or difficult question to answer. The notion of a bite-size nugget of literature is so suited to the zeitgeist that it would be stranger if flash fiction hadn’t taken off in tandem with internet use.

We all recognise the way the web and the increasingly indigestible amount of information flowing towards us all day affects our attention spans. It seems to be a self-perpetuating problem, in that content for the web is tailored to internet users whose eyes will jump around a page, reading a key sentence here and there; once the content reflects this, readers of web pages find that’s all they need to do to get the ‘whole story,’ and it becomes habit… Not that I make any such concessions on this blog. But I digress.

Flash fiction is, relatively speaking, still a nascent literary form. There isn’t much agreement on what counts as flash fiction at all, let alone what makes for good flash fiction. Word limits range from 50 or so up to the thousands, where we seem to be crossing into short story territory, but is a piece of flash fiction at 1200 words different from a short story? Presumably a writer with fixed ideas about what makes flash fiction and what makes a short story could write two pieces of equal length, but consider one to fall into the former category and the other into the latter.

Some flash writers and readers seem to consider true flash fiction to be a kind of condensed version of a longer story, in a way that a deliberate ‘short story’ definitely is not. They perhaps perceive the challenge to be in forcing a protagonist, plot, jeopardy and resolution into the smallest word count possible. I for one doubt this would make for the most satisfying read. And then there’s nano-fiction, and micro-fiction, which might turn out to have other defining features depending on who you ask.

Short stories often do something quite the opposite of condensing a narrative. They may offer us a moment, or illustrate something as simple as a shift in perception, a connection made or lost, a feeling discovered. They may even do this without telling us that is what they are doing. Raymond Carver’s short stories offer good examples of this.

I am intrigued by flash fiction, but feel a little weary in the knowledge that, new as it is, with no clear rules or necessarily expectations, there is going to be an awful lot of chaff out there obscuring the wheat. On the other hand, the lack of restrictions on technique, content and length ought to unleash some interesting examples of creativity in a new form.

I intend to try and learn what makes good flash fiction for me by trying to write it myself. After all, how long can it take to bash out 100 words? For most writers, that is both a difficult and interesting question…


  1. I've heard 100 word stories called 'drabbles' which is a lovely word but did befuddle me when I first heard it.

    I try to write a flash piece every Friday as part of the Friday Flash community, and for me, that's a story of 1000 words or less. I think people can get too hung up on these definitions though. Great stories can arrive in packages from 6 words to 200,000 words in length.

    I write novels as well as flash fiction and short stories, and each helps the other. Hope you enjoy your dabbling :)

  2. Cinnamon Press published a book of flash fiction called Exposure.
    I found the collection predictable after a while, which is a pity because you might think it would be an opportunity to be original.