What is Flash Fiction?

If you’ve never heard of flash fiction before, don’t worry…you’re not alone.

I’m about to tell you the story of the Barnes & Noble employee who also had no idea what I was talking about.

So, one day, I’m at trusty old Barnes & Noble, compiling an armload of books as I wander around the shelves, and, having recently developed an interest in flash fiction, I meander over to the short story section to see if I can find a compilation of flash fiction.

The problem isn’t that I’m not sure if such a thing exists. I know such a thing exists. I’ve seen such a thing. I just don’t own such a thing, and I am looking to do so.

But, as anyone who has ever shopped at Barnes & Noble knows, organization is limited to alphabetical (with the exception of when people get in there and start moving things around), so, since I’m not looking for a collection of short stories by any one author—rather a type of short story—and I’m not looking for any specific title, I’m a little at a loss for how to find a book of flash fiction. Should I just look at every single short story collection until I find one that represents what I’m searching for? That seems unreasonable.

I lament about this to my husband, who is standing by faithfully and patiently despite the fact that he has little to no interest in being in a bookstore aside from the fact that it keeps me happy, and, ever the logical and sane human being, he makes the obvious suggestion: why don’t you just ask someone who works here? They can look it up, can’t they?

You…you mean speak to an actual living human being??? In person??? THE HORROR!!!

But, he’s the logical one in this relationship, and he’s right. I really don’t have a choice if I need help finding a book.

So, I make some faces at my husband (have I mentioned how patient he is?), steel myself for human interaction, and head over to the customer service desk, where two booksellers stand: one, an older woman with a haircut like a curly gray pompadour, and the other, a round young man with a brown goatee and thick black glasses. They are making idle chit-chat when I approach, so I wait for them to finish their conversation before the gray-haired woman turns her gaze to me. “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I need some help finding something in the short story section. I was wondering, do you have any collections of flash fiction?”

She raises one eyebrow at me like I’ve just asked her for a how-to manual on making homemade napalm and says, “Of what?”

Now, you may have picked up on the fact that I’m not great at face-to-face human interaction, nor do I do it very often being that I work from home, so I think maybe I just inadvertently mumbled through my question. “Of flash fiction,” I repeat, making sure to speak up this time.

Gray Pompadour continues to give me the look. “I don’t know what you mean,” she says, making no move toward the computer that is just centimeters away from her elbow, and where I imagine she could type “flash fiction” and possibly yield at least some sort of result.

Beginning to resent that my husband ever suggest I ask a real, breathing human for assistance, I explain to her what I mean. “You know, short short stories,” I tell her. “Generally short stories that are under 1000 words or so, or are maybe just one or two pages.”

Gray Pompadour gives me a look that could possibly just be confusion, but to an anxiety-riddled human being like myself, looks more like I just blew my nose and then handed her the drippy tissue. “Oh, no,” she says. “We don’t sell anything like that.”

I mean, the look was NOT THAT FAR OFF from this.

She turns back to her conversation with her fellow bookseller, and I offer a clipped, “Okay, thanks,” before turning around and shooting my husband the look that he knows means, “I hate it when you suggest I interact with other people and it goes this way,” (again, very patient man, this one) before leaving the customer service desk, no closer to finding a collection of flash fictions stories than I was when I started.

(I might add that a quick search for flash fiction on the public Barnes & Noble website actually yields quite a few results, some of which are physical books and some of which are available as e-books on the Nook, something a bookseller would likely be able to find if they took a moment to stop leaning on their elbow and actually move those arms over toward their computer keyboard for a moment. I know for sure that if a title isn’t available, it can be ordered in, as this is something I have done at Barnes & Noble before—in fact, at the very location I was at when this story happened. So, really, I assure you, this isn’t a commentary on Barnes & Noble as a whole, as much as it is on this particular bookseller who clearly wasn’t familiar with the genre and had no interest in becoming familiar with it. This was a pretty negative interaction for me, and made me wonder why this woman wanted to be a bookseller if she was apathetic about literature in general, but I don’t mean to offend anyone who works at Barnes & Noble or loves shopping there. I myself love shopping there and know many of the employees are lovely—but I wasn’t so lucky on this specific expedition.)

This interaction did two things for me: one, it further cemented my aversion to interacting with humans. But more importantly (maybe), it made me realize that there may be more people than I realize out there who have no idea what flash fiction is, or that it even exists, let alone how captivating it can truly be.

So let’s go ahead and move on from Samsara Storytime Hour to Flash Fiction 101.

First of all, what is it?

Well, as I touched on above, flash fiction is a form of a short story. The short story’s kid brother, if you will. Flash fiction stories—sometimes also referred to as “micro-fiction”—are often one or two pages long, and generally stay under 1000-1500 words (meaning most of them are shorter than my blog posts). They are very much what they sound like: just a flash of fiction. A “flash in the pan”, so to speak.

An expression which, contrary to popular belief, has to do with musket firing, not frying pans.

If short stories are a moment, flash fiction stories are a fraction of a moment: an attempt to capture a feeling, an event, or a meaning in just a few short words. When executed well, flash fiction stories are genuinely impressive, as the writer has such a limited span of time to connect with the reader, so to do so, and to create something with resonance, can be quite a feat.

Some of you may be familiar with an early and very well-known example of flash fiction which is often said to be written by Ernest Hemingway (though in reality, we don’t know for sure if it was the author of The Old Man and the Sea who penned it). The story, only six words long, simply says: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

God, right in the feels, right? Ugh.

Now, this is a pretty extreme version of flash fiction, and be aware, most flash fiction stories are much longer than six words—though I have seen some very impressive works that are only a few sentences. The range between a story such as the one above and a piece of flash fiction that happens to cap off just south of 1000 words, however, is proof that even in such a small work of art can be quite diverse in the way it is produced, the way it is presented, and the feelings it elicits.

I initially discovered flash fiction when I stumbled across NYC Midnight, a website which holds various writing contests which take place over multiple rounds, such as a screenplay writing contest, a short story writing contest, and, of course, a flash fiction writing contest. I had chosen to participate in one of NYC Midnight’s short story contests, and was nosing around the website looking at the other contests they hold when I discovered the Flash Fiction Competition. Intrigued, I started reading the winning entries from previous years, and then embarked on a journey across the web to find out more, and to discover more stories. I did end up purchasing a book of flash fiction (via good ol’ Amazon, since that Barnes & Noble employee let me down on such an epic level), studied up, and eventually ended up entering the Flash Fiction Competition, which I have now participated in multiple years in a row.

The process, aside from being pretty exciting for a nerd like myself, is also an extremely helpful exercise for me as a writer. The trademark of flash fiction, of course, is how short it is, whereas I can tend to be somewhat longwinded in my writing, and longer works are more of my forte (I’m currently working on my third novel). But, as most writers know, editing is a major facet of all creative works. Learning to condense a story or a message I wish to portray into a work which is under 1000 words has helped me become more comfortable with the act of cutting things from my works in progress, and working toward making my writing more concise and to the point—getting more across with less words (or at least trying to). Overall, even though I have yet to place in a Flash Fiction Competition, I’m definitely still gaining something useful from it, and can always learn and grow as a writer.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, but why does this genre matter to me?

Well, to be honest, it may not matter to you, but perhaps it should. There are quite a few things that stand out about flash fiction. For one, it’s just downright interesting to read. It’s really fascinating to see how different authors portray a moment in just a few paragraphs, how they convey a meaning in just two or three pages.

Writing flash fiction can be an experience, as well, as mentioned previously. It can help you hone your editing skills, become more comfortable with putting those big red X’s through whole sections of your WIP, and figuring out what you really need. Flash fiction is the epitome of less is more: there is rarely any “filler”, unnecessary dialogue, or exhaustingly lengthy descriptions. Both reading and writing this can teach us so much as writers.

There’s another perk to flash fiction, as well—it’s not an extremely common or over-saturated genre. Though I believe the micro-stories are having a moment, and will only grow in popularity, they are not something you constantly hear everyone talking about. Tons of people read novels or even series of novels, and many people read short stories. But flash fiction may be something new to you, and that’s a good thing. I genuinely feel that as readers and writers, it’s important for us to expand our horizons and sometimes move outside our comfort zones. It’s all too easy to situate ourselves firmly in the realm of YA fantasy series, or whatever we are most comfortable with. (And of course, there’s always the case of the “echo chamber” when it comes to blogging or book discussion, but that’s a topic for another day.) But while we may have favorites and things we just naturally enjoy more than others, now and then, exploring new genres, authors, and books can be eye-opening and help make us more well-rounded readers and writers. And is there really anything bad about that?

If you’re looking for an introduction to the world of these super short works of fiction, I recommend checking out Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazuka. Some of my personal favorites from this collection include Pumpkins by Francine Prose, Pendergast’s Daughter by Lex Williford, and The Factory by Mary Dilworth (probably my number one favorite of the three).

What are your thoughts? Are you already familiar with flash fiction? If not, do you plan on checking it out? What do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of such short stories? Let me know in the comments! You know I’d love to talk <3

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