I have been asked to write an article about flash-fiction. I’m not sure how often this happens to you, but for me it’s become quite a common experience. You see, I seem to have become the go-to-guy for all things flash and am called upon with startling frequency to write this kind of piece.
Why? You may ask. Well, at the tail end of last year I came up with the idea to hold a National Flash-Fiction Day (NFFD). I spent months organising, chivvying, and writing, and it took place on May 16 2012 with lots of wonderful activities going on all over the UK (and some others around the world too). One upshot of all this was that I ended up writing articles and giving interviews, over and over, about flash-fiction, what it is, why it’s good, what I write about etc.
So, you would think, that being asked to do it once more would either be boring or easy. Surely after spending nearly a year answering questions about the form I can more or less do it in my sleep? Well, yes and no. You see, it’s not that simple. If you’ve ever tried to define poetry, or short stories, you’ll find the same problem. There are as many different definitions of flash-fiction as there are writers of the form. All I can do is give you my opinion and hope that at least some of it makes sense to you.
And what are my qualifications for being the ‘flash guy’? Well, apart from coming up with the idea for NFFD and organising it, I also spent twelve months from May 2011 – April 2012 writing a flash-fiction every day, this following on from a similar project writing one a day in January 2011. So, I do know at least a little of which I speak. From my experiences writing, reading and publishing flash-fictions, here is what I have worked out, displayed as a conversation with myself:
‘Flash’? So, they’re short, right?
Flash-fictions are also sometimes called short-short stories. As such, they are shorter than the usual short story, and the only real way anyone has found to define them is by length.
So, what length is a flash-fiction then?
Most people are happy to agree to under 1000 words, but limits of 500, 350, 250, 150, 100, 69 and 50 also apply. By the time you get down to double digits, names like ‘drabble’ and ‘micro-fiction’ start to be bandied about. Are these subdivisions of flash-fiction? Who knows?
Are these the ones with a twist in the end?
Sometimes, though in my personal opinion a flash-fiction which purely serves a jokey twist is not really pulling its weight. A flash-fiction can have a surprising ending, but it should be entirely consistent with the story, the characters, and emerge naturally from the plot, so that it makes complete sense, almost feels predictable, but isn’t.
Do they have to be on any particular topic?
Any and all. Just as you wouldn’t limit the topics, themes and genres of a novel or a short story, so there is no limit to what you can do in a flash-fiction. And before you say you can’t do a full family epic… yes you can. It just has to be short! The point with flash-fiction is that you need to make the words do a lot of work – bringing in associations to allow the reader to flesh out the story with all the missing details. In that way you can tell a much larger story than the words would suggest.
Ah, so it’s poetry then? Or maybe prose poetry?
Well, sometimes, yes. The line between flash-fiction and prose poetry is a much argued and oft-travelled thing. In the end the difference between the two comes down to things like the reader’s interpretation or even the author’s intention. That said, there is usually more of a sense of action and journey in a flash-fiction – a plot that unfolds – where a prose poem may be more focussed on the theme, emotion or idea behind the piece than the on the narrative.
So can it just be a bit of a larger story, then? Like a scene or something?
Well… yes… almost all flash-fictions suggest a much larger story going on, from which this is just a small section. But it also needs to be a complete and contained piece in and of itself, with a beginning, middle and end, no matter how inconclusive.
So, let’s get this straight, it’s a short-short story, of indeterminate length, but almost certainly under 1000 words, on any topic, in any genre, the ending should be utterly predictable but also completely surprising, its words work like they do in poetry but the thing itself is not a poem, and it needs to be complete, with a proper ending, even if it doesn’t conclude?
Yep. That’s it. Except for when it isn’t.
Ah well, I tried. Despite writing them for a year, and running NFFD I’m not sure that I’m any clearer on how to fundamentally define the form that is known as flash-fiction. I just know that I can spot a really good one when I see it. And the best ones are up there with the greatest stories in the world. They are short enough to be completely memorable, and because they suggest much more than they tell they linger in the brain a lot longer than some longer stories or novels. When done well, they are perfectly crafted miniature behemoths; icebergs beaching in your brains, the ten percent you have read pulling the other ninety percent out into daylight.
If you haven’t experienced flash-fiction yet, what are you waiting for? Go get you some. They’re great!
Calum Kerr is a writer of flash-fictions, short stories, poetry and novels. His collection of linked flashes, Braking Distance, is available from Salt Publishing You can find out more about him on his website and about National Flash-Fiction Day. His year-long flash-project is still available to read here.