On Reading, Flash Fiction: Literature in Miniature

It’s taught at Stanford, Brown and Cambridge universities. More than 300 print and online publications are devoted to it. A day of national celebration is named after it in New Zealand. Writers from Ernest Hemingway to Raymond Carver to Margaret Atwood have excelled in the genre. Yet no one, it seems, can define it precisely.

It’s flash fiction.

Ultra short stories have caught on as a social phenomenon, a literary discipline and as an attractive and rewarding–albeit fleeting–read.

I became attracted to it when a friend was using 100-word stories as an exercise in a writers’ group he was leading. It seemed a daunting assignment to write a complete story in only 100 words. But I managed it. Packing in an intriguing beginning, a protagonist, a challenge and a satisfying conclusion made it all the more challenging to write but also more rewarding. After a while, I had enough stories for a small book: Cops, Crooks & Other Stories in 100 Words.

Although there are a multitude of names for very short fiction, flash fiction seems to be the most widely accepted title. The English Dept. course at Stanford University is called, Topics in Intermediate Fiction Writing: Flash Fiction. At University of Cambridge it’s, Flash Fiction, Unlocking the Writer Within. Brown University offers a course for high school students preparing for college. It’s simply called Flash Fiction.

If you’re interested in sampling this relatively new genre, Dutrope.com, a website that matches writers with publications, lists more than 300 journals and magazines that publish flash fiction, among them the Boston Literary Magazine, 100 Word Story and Vestal Review.

I don’t know if New Zealanders are more enthralled with flash fiction than other English-speakers but every June 22 is National Flash Fiction Day. Sponsored by the New Zealand Society of Authors and supported by bookstores and the Auckland Central City Library, the event includes workshops and a national writing competition.

For centuries authors have been writing short stories so it’s difficult to identify the first example of flash fiction, simply because no one can agree on how short (or long) a story must be. The authors listed above created flash fiction, but did Poe, O. Henry or Twain write something short enough to fit the category?

Today a 100-word limit seems to be common. It’s the length I chose for my book and the length required by many online publications. But editors at dozens of other flash fiction publications have different ideas. Some ask for 50-word stories. For others it’s 55 words, 66 words, 75 words and one limits writers to 460 characters. At the other extreme, some anthologies and flash fiction contests look for stories under 1,000 words and some editors consider a 2,000-word story to be flash fiction. Surely you couldn’t read that in a flash.

Smith Magazine has published a series of popular books containing six-word stories or memoirs. The latest book in the series is called Six Words About Work.

Although six words may seem inadequate to tell a story, no matter how you define it, flash fiction can be your daily literature in miniature.

Have you ever read this type of literature? Do you think it could be satisfying? Leave a comment and let us know.


Guest contributor Mark S. Bacon is a former newspaper reporter and the author of several nonfiction business books. Visit him at www.Baconsmysteries.com

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