Novels, novellas, and short stories are all commonly read forms of literature, but it’s generally rarer to come across flash fiction. This type of prose fiction is much newer than others, and because it isn’t often published traditionally or studied in schools and universities it can often be overlooked. But flash fiction is a fun style to read and write, and the short form is much more at home in our contemporary, digital society.
Definition of flash fiction
Flash fiction is a form of literature that’s even shorter than short stories. It tends to be no more than 1000 words, although it can be a little longer, whereas short stories can be up to 10,000.
Typically, flash fiction is a form of prose fiction, so it would appear and read much like a traditional short story, only much shorter.
Flash fiction is sometimes referred to by other names such as microfiction, microstories, short short stories, and sudden fiction.
How long is flash fiction?
A flash fiction story is usually between 300 and 1000 words long. It can be longer, with a maximum of around 1500 words, but any longer and it’s more likely to be considered to be a traditional short story.
Flash fiction can also be less than 300 words. In the most extreme cases, it may even be as short as a single sentence, although some people might call stories this short a different name – microfiction.
What’s the difference between flash fiction and microfiction?
Flash fiction is a term that’s sometimes used interchangeably with microfiction. However, flash fiction generally refers to a broader range of stories in terms of length, whereas microfiction is specifically the very shortest subcategory of these.
Microfiction is usually only as much as 300 words long and can be as short as 6 words.
Key characteristics of flash fiction
The main feature of flash fiction that makes it distinct from other forms of literature is, unsurprisingly, its short length. This requirement for brevity is what influences many of the other common characteristics of this short form, such as:
- Concise prose – there’s no room for long, rambling settings in flash fiction. When you only have a few hundred words to play with, every single one counts.
- A single setting – this isn’t always the case, but it usually is. Flash fiction typically takes place in one location, and with only one scene.
- A single time frame – as with the setting, there are typically only enough words to describe one moment in time. A time jump might be possible, but usually, the story will be a single, continuous scene.
- Begins in medias res – because of the limited word count, flash fiction stories tend to jump right into the action.
- Excludes background details – character backstory and other pieces of information have to be left out, leaving only the most necessary details needed for the story to work.
- Often includes a twist – the best way to make an ending work with flash fiction is by writing an ending that recontextualises the preceding parts of the story with one powerful twist.
- Allows the reader to find their own meaning – due to the lack of details and brevity necessary for the story, flash fiction can’t explain every small detail. This means that the reader has to infer what they can from the information available in order to fill in the blanks and decide how they interpret the story.
The history of flash fiction
Super short stories have existed in one form or another for millennia. Parables, adages and elements of folklore are often passed on and shared like stories, and children’s stories too needed to be brief to make it easier for younger audiences and readers to keep focused.
Short stories became most popular in the early 1900s, mainly due to more prolific magazine publishing. Before then, only novels were deemed worth printing, binding and marketing, but magazines provided a space for multiple stories to be displayed together.
Making short stories even shorter was a way for writers to test their skills and stretch the boundaries of narrative storytelling. These concise stories became more commonplace, although there wasn’t a definitive name for them.
The 1983 collection Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories included two potential names for them within its title. By 1992, the Norton anthology Flash Fiction provided a term which is now much more well-known.
In the 21st century, flash fiction is more popular than ever due to social media and online platforms enabling aspiring writers to easily publish and share their short stories.
Tips on how to write flash fiction
Writing flash fiction is similar to writing short stories, except for working within a much smaller word count. This can make flash fiction much more challenging, so here are a few tips for writing your own:
- Restrict your setting to one location and time frame in order to keep the story concise.
- Jump straight into the action (in medias res).
- Don’t waste time on backstories. Your character’s actions, dialogue, and thoughts should be enough to make them feel real and unique.
- Remember the basics of storytelling: include a beginning, middle and end. There needs to be some sort of narrative arc, even with the small word count.
- Limit characters to one or two, with three being the maximum for what you could reasonably fit in.
- Keep descriptions brief but make sure they still evoke the tone and atmosphere needed to tell your story.
- Include some level of ambiguity in the story. Not every single detail needs to be laid out for the reader.
For more help and advice on how to start, read our blog on how to write flash fiction.
Flash fiction examples
There are many examples of flash fiction available to read online, from classic authors to contemporary writers. Here are a few top examples:
- ‘Give It Up’ by Franz Kafka
- ‘John Redding Goes to Sea’ by Zora Neale Hurston
- ‘Sticks’ by George Saunders
- ‘The Visitor’ by Lydia Davis
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