Flash Fiction Definition and History

Little Stories That Pack a Big Punch

Flash Fiction Book
Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America.

Flash fiction goes by many names, including microfiction, microstories, short-shorts, short short stories, very short stories, sudden fiction, postcard fiction, and nanofiction.

While it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact definition of flash fiction based on word count, consideration of several of its features can help provide clarity about this compressed form of short story.

Characteristics of Flash Fiction

  • Brevity: Regardless of the exact word count, flash fiction attempts to condense a story into the fewest words possible. To look at it another way, flash fiction tries to tell big, rich, complex stories quickly and concisely.
  • A beginning, middle, and end: In contrast to a vignette or reflection, most flash fiction emphasizes plot. While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, telling a complete story is part of the excitement of working in this condensed form.
  • A twist or surprise at the end: Setting up expectations and then turning them upside down in a short space is one hallmark of successful flash fiction.

Length 

There is no universal agreement about the length of flash fiction, but it is usually fewer than 1,000 words long. Also, trends change based on what type of flash fiction is being used. In general, microfiction and nanofiction tend to be particularly brief. Short short stories are a little longer, and sudden fiction is the longest of the short forms.

Often, the exact length of flash fiction is determined by the specific book, magazine, or website that's publishing the story.

Esquire magazine, for example, held a flash fiction contest in 2012 in which the word count was determined by the number of years the magazine had been in publication.

National Public Radio's Three-Minute Fiction contest asks writers to submit stories that can be read in less than three minutes. While the contest does have a 600-word limit, clearly the length of reading time is more important than the exact number of words.

Popularizing Flash Fiction

Examples of very short stories can be found throughout history and across many cultures, but there is no question that flash fiction is enjoying an immense wave of popularity in the modern era.

Two editors who have been influential in popularizing the form are Robert Shapard and James Thomas, who began publishing their "Sudden Fiction" series in the 1980s, featuring stories of fewer than 2,000 words. Since then, they have continued to publish flash fiction anthologies, including "New Sudden Fiction," "Flash Fiction Forward," and "Sudden Fiction Latino," sometimes in collaboration with other editors.

Another important early player in the flash fiction movement was Jerome Stern, a director of the creative writing program at Florida State University, which inaugurated its World's Best Short Short Story contest in 1986. At the time, the contest challenged participants to write a complete short story in no more than 250 words, though the limit for this contest has since been raised to 500 words.

Though some writers initially eyed flash fiction with skepticism, others embraced the challenge of telling a complete story in the fewest words possible, and readers responded enthusiastically. It's safe to say that flash fiction has now gained mainstream acceptance. For its July 2006 issue, for instance, O, The Oprah Magazine commissioned flash fiction by well-known authors such as Antonya Nelson, Amy Hempel, and Stuart Dybek.

Today, flash fiction contests, anthologies, and websites abound. Even literary journals that traditionally have published only longer stories now frequently feature works of flash fiction on their pages.

6-Word Stories

One of the most famous examples of flash fiction is the "baby shoes" six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." The story is often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, but Garson O'Toole at Quote Investigator has done extensive work to trace its true origin.

The baby shoes story has spawned many websites and publications devoted to six-word stories. Readers and writers have been captivated by the depth of emotion created by just these six words. It is so sad to imagine why those baby shoes were never needed, and even sadder to imagine the stoic person who picked themself up from loss and got down to the practical work of taking out a classified ad to sell the shoes.

For carefully curated six-word stories, try Narrative magazine. Narrative is selective about the work they publish, so you'll find only a handful of six-word stories there every year, but all of them resonate.

For six-word nonfiction, Smith Magazine is well known for its six-word memoir collections, most notably, Not Quite What I Was Planning.

The Purpose of Flash Fiction

With its seemingly arbitrary word limits, you might be wondering about the point of flash fiction. Well, when every writer works within the same constraints—whether it's 79 words or 500 words—flash fiction becomes almost like a game or a sport. Rules demand creativity and showcase talent.

Almost anyone with a ladder could drop a basketball through a hoop, but it takes a real athlete to dodge the competition and make a three-point shot during a game. Likewise, the rules of flash fiction challenge writers to squeeze more meaning out of language than they might ever have thought possible, leaving readers awestruck by their accomplishments.