Why Write Flash Fiction?

I’ve been going over the notes for my Flash Fiction online workshop and so I’m prompted to talk about some of my motivation in giving the class and why I think it’s a particularly useful one for writers.

What is flash fiction? As the name would imply, it’s short. Short, short, short. It’s sometimes called short-short stories for that reason. People define that length in varying numbers: The Florida Review used to award $100 and a crate of oranges to the winner of their World’s Best Short-Short Story competition, while the editor/publisher K.C. Ball of TenFlash Magazine once made me rewrite a 500 word piece, “The Forbidden Stitch,” up into the 1000 word range, because she said otherwise it wouldn’t be a story. Others have stretched it as far as 2000 words (which to my mind wanders into actual short story territory).

Others go much shorter, pointing to Hemingway’s famous six word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” There’s twitter fiction magazines, like Thaumatrope,Nanoism, and 140 Characters (which last posted in March of 2012, alas). I actually fall in this camp, but to explain why, I need to explain the appeal that flash fiction holds for me.

Flash fiction is concentrated fiction, undiluted by digression or subplot. A flash story is an arrow thrilling in the reader’s heart, something that hits dead on. It uses the story structure in miniature and gets at the heart of what a story must do. A story is more than a static beautiful moment: somewhere in it, something must change.

In traditional stories, and in many of their flash counterparts, the change occurs in the main/viewpoint character. In the best ones, there is often an internal as well as external change: In conquering her fear of spiders, Polly defeats the Squids From Beyond. Because flash is short, often that’s not met and the change is one or the other. Other kinds of change might involve the setting, or some other major factor within the confines of the story. But change must happen.

But another kind of change can occur as well. That change is in the reader, either emotionally or in terms of their expectations. That’s what happens in the Hemingway story. We begin with a question: what is for sale? and all the accompanying questions: who is selling it, why, what price, under what circumstances.

The answer immerses us in sweet sentimentality with an exemplar of cuteness, because who doesn’t like baby shoes? They are quintessential cuteness, up there with things like piglets dressed as unicorns or hedgehogs wearing hats.

Then while we float, disarmed, in that delicious warmth, the hammer of tragedy strikes at our very core: the shoes have never been used. Nothing else needs to be said; we supply the rest. Dead baby. Our understanding, our expectations, our emotions, all shifted by a pair of words. We are changed. Good fiction, or at least fiction that falls within a particular definition of “good”, can change us.

Not every flash piece does this. Flash lends itself well to humor, to the shaggy dog story, to the punchline at the end (another change in the reader, as we are moved from the expectant moment of story beginning to the ultimate laugh or groan) and it’s a good length for it. But the longer the story gets, the better that punchline needs to be, or else a reader feels they’ve wasted their time. You’ll listen more readily to the office storyteller’s cleverly shaped anecdote than you will to the one from Kim from accounting, who can’t seem to stick to the point when they’re recounting the story of how the office copier got broken at the holiday party.

Sometimes flash fiction slides over into prose poetry territory. But even a poem must have something at its core, a microcosm of a story that comes in the form of a realization. Poetry itself is a good stretch for fiction writers; it makes you try to distill things in a way that sharpens one’s skill at catching nuances in a single line.

At any rate, writing flash fiction is both a useful and productive exercise for writers. Anything that makes us practice writing is surely a good thing, and sitting down to write a flash piece fulfills that. Beyond that, it’s very satisfying to rise from the desk knowing you’ve written something in its entirety, as opposed to the tiresome nature of a novel, which swallows hours and hours of writing while swelling as slowly as ice accreting on a glacier.

You can use flash to try out new techniques. One of the exercises I often use in class draws on a piece I heard Gra Linnaea read at World Fantasy Con, written all in future tense, which I read to the class before challenging them to write their own pieces in future tense. Another draws on Randy Henderson’s most excellent THE MOST EPICLY AWESOMEST STORY! EVER!!, which I use to challenge the class to think about bad writing vs. good.

Many new writers are hungry for publications, and writing flash is a good strategy for garnering some. Flash markets, by their nature, consume a lot of pieces, and where a market that publishes one story each month is buying only that one story, a flash market is buying a much larger number. One of my favorites is Daily Science Fiction, which mails me a story every weekday. Every Day Fiction, as another example, runs a flash piece each day. The shorter a piece is, the easier it is on an editor’s budget.

You can polish a flash piece more easily than a longer one, and learn some things about revision in the process, play with tricks like referencing the title or bringing things full circle. Every word in a flash piece must count; writing it teaches you how to write tight and clear and without lint all over the sentences.

But the thing I like most about the class is this: every time I teach it, I do at least some of the exercises with the students, and each time, I come away with resulting word lumps that turn into published flash. Here’s some that appeared on Daily Science Fiction: “Bit Player,” “You Have Always Lived in the Castle,” The Haunted Snail,” and “Just the Facts: A Zombie Story.” The fun of spending a couple of hours talking and playing writing games with other writers + a probable sale? You can see why I’m always ready to teach people how to flash.

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