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.
There is no universal agreement about the length of flash fiction, but it is usually fewer than 1,000 words long. In general, microfiction and nanofiction tend to be extremely brief, short short stories are a little longer, and sudden fiction tends to be the longest of the short forms, all of which can be referred to by the umbrella term "flash fiction."
Usually the length of flash fiction is determined by the specific book, magazine, or website that's publishing the story.
Esquire magazine, for example, holds a flash fiction contest in which the word count is determined by the number of years the magazine has 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 number of words.
Brevity. Regardless of the specific 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 the biggest, richest, most complex story possible within a certain word limit.
A beginning, middle, and end. In contrast to a vignette or reflection, most flash fiction tends to emphasize 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. Again, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but setting up expectations and then turning them upside down in a short space is one hallmark of successful 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 currently enjoying an immense wave of popularity.
Two editors who have been influential in popularizing the form are Robert Shapard and James Thomas, who began publishing their Sudden Fiction series, featuring stories of fewer than 2,000 words, in the 1980s. 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, the 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 (called -- what else? -- micr-O fiction) by well-known authors such as Antonya Nelson, Amy Hempel, and Stuart Dybek.
Today, flash fiction contests, anthologies, and websites abound. Literary journals that traditionally have published only longer stories now frequently feature works of flash fiction in their pages as well.
One of the most famous examples of flash fiction, often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, is the six-word story, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." (Garson O'Toole at Quote Investigator has done extensive work tracing the origin of this story if you'd like to learn more about it.)
The baby shoes story has spawned so many websites and publications devoted to six-word stories that it merits special mention here. Readers and writers have clearly been captivated by the depth of emotion hinted at by 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 himself or herself up from loss and got down to the practical work of taking out a classified ad to sell the shoes.
Unfortunately, many of the six-word-story websites publish such large quantities that they can be overwhelming. It can be tedious to sift through all of entries until you find a story that really moves you.
For more carefully curated six-word stories, try Narrative magazine. Narrative is very selective about all 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.
With its seemingly arbitrary word limits, you might be wondering what the point of flash fiction is. After all, there is no inherent connection between the number of years Esquire has been in print and the number of words it takes to tell a story.
But 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 increase 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 3-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.