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Flash Fiction


An Essay By Miriam N. Kotzin




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If you like short stories that begin something like, "Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, in a land where…" and then meander to their conclusion, or if you want to hunker in on a snowy night with The Recognitions for light reading, flash fiction is probably not for you. But if you want a jolt, then you might have found your form. Sudden fiction, flash fiction, micro fiction, smoke-long fiction, postcard fiction--all are names for the short short fiction, seemingly designed especially for online reading. Mark Budman, whose elegant quarterly Vestal Review publishes a half-dozen flashes of 500 words or under in each issue, says, "I love flash's intensity, its ability to say much in little space, and, let's face it, its instant gratification." 

Like good poetry, good flash provides not only gratification in the moment, but as a result of its intensity, an emotional experience that persists. It's analogous to what happens when you stare directly into a flash bulb: an after-image floats for a while in your field of vision.

Debi Orton publishes an online magazine whose name, Flashquake, indicates the intensity of the literature she publishes. Because she posts both poetry and flash fiction, I asked her what she looks for in flash that she doesn't ask of poetry. She answered, "First, narrative drive. Because of its compressed universe, flash has to do a better job of hooking the reader immediately and maintaining the reader's interest throughout the story. Second, most good flash requires the reader to make an investment in one or more characters. If the reader can't empathize with the characters in the story, there's no connection. Third is precision in describing environments and situations."

Robert Shapard and James Thomas have been working with what they've called sudden fiction for more than two decades. Because they've been working with the form so long, I asked them what role they thought the internet played in popularizing the form. They called it a "synergy. Or a synchronicity." Shapard said, "It's tempting to say the Internet has been the main popularizer of flash and sudden but that's not quite right. When we started researching 20 years ago, very few print magazines ran short-short fiction. When they did it was usually gathered as a rare feature. But increasingly, well before the Internet boom, hundreds of print literaries began to run short-short fiction not in features but as regular fare. Recently we dug through nearly 500 print literary magazines, many through all their issues for the last five years . . and found flashes and suddens more popular in the print medium than ever. . .It could be that the Internet is reflecting that, increasing that, and even changing the very short forms--some might argue Internet fiction is distinct, in a good way."

While the literary magazines ran short shorts, so did some mass-market magazines for women. They ran stories complete on two pages. I didn't realize at the time that I was reading the wave of the future.

Shapard and Thomas draw a line at 750 words, above which they consider the story sudden fiction, and below that flash. Others consider 1000 words the upper limit for flash, but many online magazines set the upper limit at 500 words, while others cap at 300. The form has a Drabble, (exactly 100 words--though some say 100 words or fewer), a 69er (69 words) and what I consider to be the sonnet form of flash in its requirements for structure, the 55er (ten lines, beginning with ten words, each line with one fewer word, ending in one word--totaling fifty-five words). For example, Sunset: Lake Erie

We stood on the beach, coarse sand and smooth stones. Couples shifted position, keeping our distance from each other.

While we waited, we chose water worn stones. These we slipped into our jacket pockets. We warmed them with our hands.

Impatient, we waited for sunset. Foolish, wishing time away!

So we were. Green flash. Stone.

Flash and sudden fiction fiction are limited by number of words, not by categories of content. When asked about the relationship between prose poems and flash, Dave Clapper, editor of the excellent SmokeLong Quarterly, which publishes flash and interviews with the authors, said, "I don't really distinguish between the two. Some flash pieces are definitely prose poems. Many aren't. Prose poetry is just one of many valid writing styles, and flash doesn't exclude any styles. I think even some straight poetry could be considered flash." 

Although flash is often associated with literary fiction, flash includes genre fiction such as science fiction, horror, romance, mystery and, yes, erotica. Clapper dismisses the constraint of a surprise ending, to him flash, "is a very open form, constrained by nothing more than word count and a writer's imagination."

I asked James Thomas about the name of flash, how he came to call it that, and he wrote the following, "I'd been using short-shorts or very-shorts in teaching at the UofU [Univeristy of Utah] for a couple of years, not really calling them much of anything, cause they worked for that purpose--but it wasn't until I found myself parked on a Greek Island (thanks to an NEA), trying to write a novel, day after day and having a hard time of it, that I decided to take a break for at least for at least a day and try writing one of those shorties myself. Never had before. To challenge myself a little more I decided that it should be exactly 1,000 words. Of course it took more than one day, for me, maybe because I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound (a completely different voice from the novel), and I knew everything that needed to happen (all but the actual ending, of course, which I figure always has to find/grow itself). So, third ! day, it's hot and I'm sweating, figuratively and literally, counting words, conniving, the door's open (I'd rented an apt. on a hill), coming down on what I think is an ending, as a thin windy storm is coming down on the sea below,  and the sun is going down, setting, I'm hungry, I'm thirsty, retsina maybe?, and yes by God I'm finding that last little situation, those last words and the storm situation is kicking up, thundering now and lightening, I've got denouement I only need climax, God give me a last sentence of just the right sound and shape, the sun is gone now, about sixteen words, and as they (surprisingly) sort of suddenly slide out there is a total illumination of the sky outside, bifurcating explosive tendrils of light over the Med, and I swear to God (I personally go for  Diana) that my period goes down somewhere in the blast and then rumble of thunder that follows a few seconds later. Flash? I don't know but it was certainly cathartic.

"Or just an affect of coincidence." That was 332 words. You get the idea.


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Suggestions for further reading:

Howe, Irving and Illana Weiner Howe, eds. Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories, reissue ed. Toronto-New York-London-Sydney: Bantam 1997. 224 pages.

Moss, Steve, ed. The World's Shortest Stories: Murder, Love, Horror, Suspense, All This and Much More in the most Amazing Short Stories Ever Written, Each One Just 55 Worlds Long. Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, l998. 224 pages.

Moss, Steve, John M. Daniel, John Daniel, Glen Starkey eds. The World's Shortest Stories of Love and Death: Passion, Betrayal, Suspicion, Revenge, All This and More in a New Collection of Amazing Short Shorts--Each one Just 55 Words Long. Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 2000. 223 pages.

Shapard, Robert and James Thomas, eds. Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories. Layton, Utah: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., l986. 264 pages.

Shapard, Robert and James Thomas, eds. Sudden Fiction International: 60 Short-Short Stories.  New York-London: W.W. Norton & Company, l989. 342 pages.

Shapard, Robert and James Thomas, eds. Sudden Fiction (Continued): 60 New Short-Short Stories.  New York-London: W.W. Norton & Company, l996. 311 pages.

Stern, Jerome, ed. MicroFiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories. New York-London: W.W. Norton & Company, l996. 141 pages.

Thomas, James and Robert Shapard, eds. Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories. New York-London: W.W. Norton and Company, Forthcoming August 2006.

Thomas, James, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka, eds. Flash Fiction: Very Short Stories. New York-London: W.W. Norton & Company, l992. 224 pages.