So What Exactly Is Flash Fiction?

Written on October 23rd, 2007 by Adam in Essays

Readers are obsessed with definition. Categorisation is king for the simple reason that it makes it easier to understand what you’re going to get before you get it.

It’s a cross between Bob Dylan and a dangerous robot.

It also drives most artists up the wall. After all, why can’t you just read the damn story, listen to the damn song or look at the damn painting? Why does it have to be compared to anything? You either like it or you don’t.

With this essay I just wanted to give you a quick and dirty explanation of what Flash Fiction is as far as I’m concerned. And it is probably the case that writers are also obsessed with definition, they just pretend they aren’t when it suits them.

Firstly, Flash Fiction has many names; short short stories, postcard fiction, microfiction, sudden fiction and sometimes just plain old short stories. I chose ‘Flash Fiction’ over all of these terms for a very simple reason – it was the first definition I found to describe the type of story I was already writing. It was only later I found out about the confusing myriad of ‘other’ names for the genre. And – yes – I was looking up definitions on the internet when I should have been writing stories. Figure that one out.

Secondly, Flash Fiction is nothing to do with Flash the internet technology (as in you must install Flash plugin to view this website) neither is it ‘Hypertext Fiction’ that bastard cousin of the 1980’s ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books that sprang up when the interweb was in its infancy. I mean, who wants to get two paragraphs into a story then be faced with a link mid-sentence to the next story? And then another one two sentences later? And another and – sorry – you probably get that I don’t like it much don’t you? It’s irritating and pointless and I’ll move on.

Third is word length. Typically I would say that a Flash Fiction would weigh in at under 1500 words. More often it would be under 1000 words but this is where it gets even more confusing because it depends on who you ask. There is a general consensus that under 1000 words constitutes Flash Fiction but, I hear you cry, isn’t that just a short story?

Well, yes and no. If you want to get pedantic about it probably goes something like this:

Microfiction – up to 400 words
Flash Fiction & Short Short Story – up to 1000 words
Short Story – between 2000 and 20000 words
Novellete – between 7500 and 17500 words
Novella – between 17500 and 40000 words
Which must put a Novel as anything over 40000 (does 40001 count? I suppose it must).

There are, of course other sub-genres, some with specific word counts, some with other properties the writers of which will no doubt be able to explain much better than myself.

Ultimately it will usually come down to an editor’s decision as to what the word count is. I tend to classify anything I write under 1000 words as Flash Fiction but have been known to stretch it higher if the mood takes me.

It is, I think, the fourth point that really defines Flash Fiction and sets it apart from other genres: Flash Fiction has a plot. No, I’m being serious – it’s fine to write stories that have no plot. I just don’t want to read them. For short short stories and Flash Fiction to be different they need to have a protagonist, conflict and resolution.

At times one or more of these elements are implied by what is in the story rather than explicitly described. Sometimes a story will just be a slice of a character’s life but there will be movement and this is what is important.

Some writers of Flash Fiction subscribe to the idea that the story needs a beginning, a middle and an end but then they tend to go on to tell you that some of these elements can also be implied. If, for example you have a married couple there is automatically a beginning. Somewhere before the story they were married and this would certainly constitute a beginning. If the same couple are arguing about his infidelity you are starting the action in the middle. And if they are arguing shortly before the wife hurls a knife at the husband, freeing herself from his duplicity forever you could say that you started at the end. That was almost a whole story and it ended before this paragraph did.

The point is that the definition is still in a state of flux. If you decide you are writing Flash Fiction then, to be honest, you probably are. Whether it is Flash Fiction, short short stories, postcard fiction, microfiction, sudden fiction or just plain old short stories shouldn’t really matter. But somehow it does – I’d be a hypocrite if I said anything else as I write an essay about Flash Fiction whilst simultaneously saying that genres don’t matter.

Of course they do – Flash Fiction is my genre and I love it! And the stories? If you like them – read more, tell your friends, tell strangers in the street. If you don’t then that’s fine – I’m sure you’ll find something else you do.

Sources for lengths

Microfiction length from PIF Magazine.
Flash Fiction and other lengths from ther lengths from Wikipedia.