March 23rd, 2008
It was recently asked of me to describe to an audience of writers what flash fiction was. When I read my first piece of flash, I couldn’t begin to answer that question, and now after writing almost nothing but flash for the past two years it’s still hard for me to define. I find that while I’ve developed a set of skills to create flash, I can only really define it by the process by which I create it. I start with a complete and fully formed short story, and then ruthlessly carve away most of it. I consider the editing rule I was given when I started down this path; ‘Cut all of what you don’t need and half of what you do.’ What remains is the essence of that whole story, with all it’s structure and key elements intact, but devoid of anything that doesn’t absolutely have to be there. That which remains, is flash. Looking for something more substantial in the way of a definition, I asked the person who’d given me that editing advice, Kathy Kachelries. It was Kathy who conceived of 365tomorrows, a web site singularly focused on short science and speculative flash fiction, and she had this to say:
“The most concise and widely-cited example of flash fiction is the story Ernest Hemingway penned, allegedly to settle a bar bet: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” Despite the limitations of its length, this story, framed as an advertisement, satisfies all of the requirements of a short story: protagonist, conflict, and resolution. A reader imagines the person who wrote the ad: a parent torn apart by the loss of a stillborn or miscarried child. The reader senses the conflict: an incomprehensible feeling of loss, made all the more poignant by the fact that it is not directly addressed. Even the resolution is contained within that six-word masterpiece. By framing it as an advertisement, Hemingway allows us to see the protagonist’s coping mechanism: an attempt to distance him or herself from the loss by selling the only physical evidence that such a loss exists.
Not all short prose is flash fiction. Unlike the vignette or the prose poem, flash fiction adheres to the same conventions as a short story or novel. As demonstrated above, flash fiction gives readers a protagonist and a central conflict, and directs them to a resolution. Due to the constraints of the form, some elements can be implied rather than expressly stated, but a story that begins in media res still holds the shape of its unwritten beginning.
This is the acid test of art. Imagine a beautifully eloquent story, and imagine a vat of hydrochloric acid. The hiss, the sound of destruction as everything you wrote is submerged. The disintegration, chemical reactions and bubbles as air returns to air. What remains, when everything superfluous has burned away? Flash fiction. The fewer words used, the greater the impact of each one.
Flash fiction is not the future of literature, nor is it the past, though it carries elements of both. As writers, we have learned to make things beautiful, to shield them in enclaves of eloquence, but in its barest form art is guerilla warfare. In this modern, digitized world the gap between readers and those who can’t allow time for such a luxury continues to grow. Someone who believes they cannot read for pleasure will not pick up a full length novel, no matter how highly their favorite newspaper recommends it. Most likely, they can’t even find a moment to stop at a bookstore between meetings. What they can do, however, is click on a link offered by a friend, coworker, or website. This is why flash fiction, one of the most ancient forms of prose, has found new life in the digital era.
Length requirements for flash fiction vary widely, and none are universally accepted. James Thomas, in his introduction to Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (the first published anthology of its kind) defines flash fiction as under 750 words, though other compilations and literary journals vary in their requirements. Some people draw a distinction between flash fiction and sudden fiction, which can be up to five pages in length according to Robert Shapard, an editor of Sudden Fiction: American Short Stories. The best definition of flash fiction might be a reappropriation of Edgar Allen Poe’s definition of the short story, set forth in his 1846 essay The Philosophy of Composition. Poe believed that all literary works, with the exception of the novel, should be read in one sitting. In Poe’s time, a sitting could consist of a half hour or more, but now most of us find our sittings confined to coffee breaks, the time between bus stops, and other moments stolen from the sprinting pace of daily life. The needs of readers are changing, and if writers don’t adapt to those needs, we risk losing thousands, even millions of potential audience members.
Flash fiction is fiction with its teeth bared and its claws extended, lithe and muscular with no extra fat. It pounces in the first paragraph, and if those claws aren’t embedded in the reader by the start of the second, the story began a paragraph too soon. There is no margin for error. Every word must be essential, and if it isn’t essential, it must be eliminated.
A busy reader may resist a lengthy story and return to their budgets and spreadsheets, but at 600 words or less, flash fiction requires less time than a trip to the water cooler. The writing has been acid-scorched and only the essential remains: without the inconvenience of length, the reader will follow a story to the final paragraph.
Although a vignette would have offered a thought-provoking snapshot, a reader hungers more than a thought exercise. For longer than written language has existed, the human psyche has ached for narrative. Storytellers were once considered indispensable members of society. The art hasn’t changed. The need hasn’t changed. Why have we allowed ourselves to become a luxury? The answer is simple: we’ve been satisfied to have an audience, regardless of whether or not that audience needs us. For the last decade, we’ve been preaching to the choir.
Fiction is both needed and desired in our modern society, though the people who need it the most don’t have the time to flip through a handful of novels per month. With flash fiction, we can fit a story into that small, stolen moment. As the creator of the flash fiction site 365tomorrows.com, I’ve received dozens of emails from people thankful to have something to read on their PDAs in the quiet moments before meetings begin. I’ve communicated with waitresses who print out our stories to flip through in the lulls before their first tables arrive. I’ve spoken with tow truck drivers, emergency room interns, and dozens of other people who consider themselves too busy to undertake a novel, and the message is universal: people want to read. Our job, as artists and storytellers, is to make reading as accessible as possible.”
If Kathy had been left alone with those words a little longer, she may have edited them down to ‘protagonist, conflict, resolution. 600 words.’ I might edit it further to one. ‘Essential.’