If a novel is a vast, tumultuous summer sky, and a short story a fast, feverish storm, then flash fiction is a cloud-splitting fork of lightning that electrifies the air.
Flash stories (aka short-shorts, smoke-longs, or sudden, quick, nano, micro, or hint fiction—Yasunari Kawabata called them “palm-of-the-hand” stories) are tiny, contortionist shapeshifters that slip between the realms of short fiction, poetry, and the lyric essay. Like a poem, a flash amps up language and imagery but retains the hallmarks of narrative: characters, voice, plot, setting, emotional turn and resolution. Flash’s distinctive trait is its restrictive word count—generally from 500 to 1,000 words; micros whittle further, from 25 to 500. But as with a formal poem or a prompt, constraint can be liberating. By restricting our space, counterintuitively we can open up something wild and unexpected. We don’t lop off a longer story to get there; from a story’s blurry birth, we harness compression and reduction, hard-wire our words, supercharge our endings. Writing in miniature is difficult and takes discipline. Flash demands you pay attention—and in our distraction-filled world, that’s a gift.
We can quibble about story definitions and length and parameters (how short can you go? when is a flash fiction a prose poem?), but the answers often are elusive—and perhaps they should be. Part of the joy of short stories and flash fiction is their unruliness, their willingness to stray and defy. To Poe, stories have a “unique or single effect”; to Grace Paley a story “can be just telling a little tale, or writing a complicated philosophical story. It can be a song, almost”; and to Edith Wharton they are “a shaft driven straight into the heart of human experience.” I’m with Steven Millhauser, who says, “The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar.”
LEARN WITH BRYN: A few spaces remain for Bryn Chancellor’s workshop “Flash Fiction: Write, Edit, Polish, Submit” on Thursday, January 23 and 30, from 6 pm to 8:30 pm. Learn more and register here.