What is Flash Fiction? A Deeper Look

In my last blog post, I mentioned the term “flash fiction” when describing the genre I write. I gave a quick definition of flash fiction: “a very short story.” But in this blog post, I’d like to further explain flash fiction since it’s not a well-known genre.

My expanded definition: Flash fiction is a short piece of fiction 1,000 words or fewer. Pieces usually live within the 500-1,000-word range. Once a piece gets to under 500 words, it falls into the microfiction category. There’s even a category called 100-word stories (pieces that are—you guessed it!—exactly 100 words).

One might think this is easy—writing a story that short must be quick since it’s such a small number of words, right? Well, the tricky part about flash fiction is that it must be a fully fleshed-out story. It must have a beginning, middle, and end; character(s); plot; conflict; description; etc. Flash cannot be an anecdote or a yarn. It must have all the elements of a 5,000-10,000 word short story but in a much tighter space. This challenging element of flash fiction is what drew me into the genre in the first place. How does one create an emotionally compelling, fully fleshed-out story in fewer than 1,000 words? It took me many years, tons of scrapped stories, studying the craft in graduate school, and participating in flash fiction workshops to finally feel comfortable in the form (not to say it still isn’t challenging!).

Another way I studied flash fiction was by reading the craft book Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (Rose Metal Press) edited by Tara L. Masih. I’ve read this book two more times since, and I even used it as a teaching tool when I taught creative writing courses. It’s a compilation of essays that discuss the craft along with providing example flash fiction pieces. Vanessa Gebbie’s essay has a great metaphor for describing flash and the effect it’s meant to have on readers. She compares flash to a firework, stating, “Good flash ought to…catch you as you turn away, hold you, and when you’re finished reading, it should echo and resonate.”

I recently bought a copy of Flash Fiction America: 73 Very Short Stories (W.W. Norton) edited by James Thomas, Sherrie Flick, and John Dufresne. This anthology was just released this year and is filled with stellar flash fiction pieces. In Dufresne’s introduction to the book, he defines flash fiction as “a narrative…that is distilled, cogent, concentrated, layered, allusive, textured, insightful, and unpredictable. It’s short but not shallow; it is a reduced form to represent a larger, more complex story…it offers the essential truth…” I believe this explanation beautifully defines flash fiction and its intricacies.

I enjoy flash fiction because it’s accessible—it’s often published online for free, and one can read it in a short period of time (2-5 minutes). I always relish the opportunity to spread the word about flash fiction because of its reachability and novelty.

Further Reading

I highly recommend the Flash Fiction America anthology if you’d like to do a deep dive and read more flash fiction. I also recommend the following flash fiction magazines that you can peruse online for free:
SmokeLong Quarterly
Fractured Lit
Flash Frog
Flash Fiction Magazine

Here is one of my flash fiction pieces if you’d like an example you can read now: “Carbonara” in Flash Fiction Magazine. 

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