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Flash Fiction

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English Literature

There's an old joke that goes: 'what's the shortest ghost story? The answer is: 'The last man in the world heard a knock at the door.' Neat, right? It gives us the set-up, the concept, and the punch line (or resolution), all in one simple sentence.

Part of the joke relies on how short it is, which also qualifies the joke as a piece of flash fiction.

Flash fiction is a very short story that still has characters and a plot despite its brevity.

The term flash fiction evolved in the 1990s, although the form goes back to ancient times (think of Aesop's Fables written in ancient Greece).

Flash Fiction: short short stories

Storytelling has been around since prehistoric times, producing a rich oral tradition that was translated onto paper when humans learnt to write.

By the 18th – 19th century, the short story had become a popular form of reading entertainment.

A good part of Dickens' Pickwick Papers (1836) is made up of short stories the various characters tell each other.

The tradition continued into the 1920s and 1930s with anthologies and collections of short works by various emerging or established authors, including :

  • In Our Time (1925) by Ernest Hemingway
  • Cosmopolitans: Very Short Stories (1936) by Somerset Maugham.

Some of these stories might be just a hundred words long, yet can deliver a distinct narrative and atmosphere.

Chapter V from Hemingway’s In Our Time describes the execution of ministers during a civil war. Despite its brevity, the text effectively communicates the feel and tone of the moment without exaggeration and delivers compelling insight into a moment of extreme crisis and suffering.

Somerset Maugham's story 'Appointment in Samarra' (1933), is just under 200 words and is a wry joke about attempting to escape destiny.

A merchant's servant sees the spectre of Death in the marketplace of Baghdad. Much shaken, the servant returns to his master and begs to borrow a horse so that he can escape to the desert of Samarra where Death will not find him. The master agrees, and the servant rides off. Later the merchant goes to the market where he sees Death and asks '[w]hy did you frighten my servant?' Death replies that he was amazed to see the servant in Baghdad as he had an appointment with him in Samarra. Maugham adds an extra twist to the tale by making Death the narrator.

Flash Fiction Online

Greater awareness of flash fiction stories has developed with the arrival of the internet. Flash fiction continues to be a valuable medium for both published and unpublished writers, as both an exercise and a way of developing their voice and making themselves known to fresh readers. Several online websites are dedicated to flash fiction, for example, Flash Fiction Online and Word Riot, which publish new material monthly.

Flash Fiction: examples

There are various types of flash fiction depending on the length of the story, and they can be roughly divided up as follows:

  • Short story (up to 7,500 words)
  • Sudden fiction (usually a little over 1000 words)
  • Short short story or flash fiction (up to around 1000 words)
  • Postcard fiction (between 250 and 500 words, or as much as can fit on a postcard!)
  • Micro-fiction (usually under 300 words)

On average, the classic short story stays within the 7,500 words mark; anything longer becomes a novella, a novel or a book.

  • Mark Twain's humorous 'A Telephonic Conversation' (1880) is 810 words long and qualifies as flash fiction or a short short story.
  • 'The Open Window' (1911) by H. H. Munro, otherwise known as Saki, is 1,214 words long and could be called an example of sudden fiction.
  • Kate Chopin's 'Dr Chevalier's Lie' (1891) is 385 words long and could be called an example of postcard fiction (although we don't know whether she intended it for that purpose!)
  • Kate Chopin's 'Blind Man' (1897) is 755 words long and can be labelled either a short short story or flash fiction.
  • In a paragraph of only 128 words, Franz Kafka's microfiction 'Give It Up' (1936) creates the eerie sense of a dream gone wrong.

Microfiction

Microfiction can be further subdivided into three categories:

  • A trabble: a story of maximum, or exactly, 300 words.
  • A drabble: a story of exactly 100 words.
  • A dribble, also called a minisaga: a story of exactly 50 words with a title made up of 15 characters.

The drabble has spawned more specific terms of precise lengths:

  • A Pentadrabble: exactly 500 words long.
  • A double drabble or drouble: exactly 200 words long.
  • The trabble, also called a tribble or trouble: exactly 300 words long (for the purists!)

So, our mini ghost story from the beginning of this article could qualify as a work of microfiction, as it is less than 300 words long; but we could also call it a dribble, as it is actually shorter than 50 words!

Microfiction has grown in popularity, with websites and magazines dedicated to the art of writing a whole story in less than 500 words, or as few as 55 words.

55Fiction is a competition set by the New Times newspaper in California. Submissions are open all year long for stories (no poetry) of a maximum of 55 words. Some of the submissions have been collected together and published as anthologies.

On the 55Fiction submissions page, the editors of New Times clarify that a story must have :

  • Setting.
  • Character(s).
  • Conflict.
  • Resolution.

They also include the following example, 'Bedtime Story' by Jeffrey Whitmore:

Careful, honey, it's loaded," he said, re-entering the bedroom. Her back rested against the headboard. "This for your wife?" "No. Too chancy. I'm hiring a professional." "How about me?" He smirked. "Cute. But who'd be dumb enough to hire a lady hit man?" She wet her lips, sighting along the barrel. "Your wife."1

Best Microfiction is a team of editors and writers who curate annual anthologies of microfiction. The stories selected are no more than 400 words in length, and in 2021, Best Microfiction received a Bronze Medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Flash Fiction in Fandom

Media Fandom adopted drabbles in the 1990s. Some examples include:

  • The X–Files

  • Sherlock Holmes

  • Blake’s 7

In 1998, The X–Files writer Brandon D. Ray wrote a 155-word-long short story called '155 or the Shortest MSR (Mulder-Scully Romance) Ever Written.' This triggered a trend within The X–Files fanfiction community for ‘155 word’ stories.

221B

These are Sherlock Holmes fanfic stories of exactly 221 words, the last word of which must begin with 'B'. 221B derives from 221B Baker Street, the address of Sherlock Holmes.

7 x 7

The name 7 x 7 is derived from Blake’s 7, and the challenge for the fanfiction community is to write stories that are exactly 49 words long.

Contemporary Microfiction

Once you reach microscopic tales that manage to epitomise a whole narrative without any set-up or plot, these could include six-word-stories, hint fiction, or twitterature.

Six-word-stories

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

This intriguing example of microfiction has been attributed to Hemingway, although there is no direct evidence to prove that he wrote it. For instance, it may also be a variant on article headings from the 1920s and 1930s, such as 'Baby carriage for sale. Never used' from the newspaper: Brooklyn Home Talk, 1921.

Hint Fiction

Whether Hemingway wrote it or not, the idea of six words telling a story inspired Robert Swartwood to create an anthology of stories each no longer than 25 words. He termed these 'hint fiction' – stories written in 25 words that suggest or ‘hint at’ bigger and more complex stories.

Hint fiction has since become a popular genre in its own right, with several websites dedicating a page or more to it, including Nanoism, Narrativemagazine, and Monkeybicyle.

One example of hint fiction from Monkeybicycle includes 'Dandelions Actually' (2011) by R. Gatwood:

He showered her with roses but never asked her favorite flower.

The six-word story has also fostered the movement Six-Word Memoirs by the online magazine Smith, which challenges people to sum up their lives in six words. On Twitter, people can share #MicroMemoirs or pivotal moments and memories from their lives.

Twitterature

Twitterature is a portmanteau of Twitter and literature, comprising poems and fiction of up to 280 characters. It can include:

  • Mini-sagas.
  • Dribbles.
  • Drabbles.
  • Six-word-stories.

Other genres are given Twitter treatment too.

  • #Twiller (a combination of Twitter and thriller) is used as a hashtag for novels that are shared on Twitter in a series of tweets.

  • #Twaiku (from Twitter and haiku) is a hashtag for haikus posted on Twitter, using up to 280 characters and 17 syllables.

An interactive Twitter poetry contest from May 2009 was won by Simon Brake with the following entry:

beneath the Morning Sun,

The city is painted gold,

People move like bees through honey

Flash Fiction: purpose

Over the centuries, the short story has survived to act as a quick, convenient way to entertain and convey a feeling, an idea, or an explanation that can help the reader make a little more sense out of life. More recently called flash fiction, it has continued to inform, engage and entertain new audiences in an increasingly fast-paced world.

With the internet, brevity and speed have taken priority, and social media platforms such as Twitter encourage writers to focus on making the most impact with the fewest words.

Flash Fiction - Key takeaways

  • Flash fiction is a very short story that, despite its brevity, still has characters and a plot
  • The term flash fiction evolved in the 1990s, although the form goes back to ancient times
  • Notable writers of flash fiction include Somerset Maugham, Kate Chopin, Ernest Hemingway, and H. H. Munro (Saki)
  • Flash fiction can be divided into subcategories based on length including sudden fiction, postcard fiction and micro-fiction
  • Microfiction can be subdivided into three categories: trabble, drabble, and dribble.
  • Hint Fiction is a story in 25 words that suggests or ‘hints at’ a bigger and more complex story.

1 Jeffrey Whitmore, 'Bedtime Story'. The World’s Shortest Stories, ed. Steve Moss, 1998.

Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is a very short story that, despite its brevity, still has characters and a plot.

Chapter V from Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925) and Somerset Maugham’s ‘Appointment in Samarra’ (1933) are some examples of flash fiction.

6 word flash fictions are a form of microfiction that features the precise use of six words to tell a story.

The various types of flash fiction depends on their length: 

  • Short story (up to 7,500 words)

  • Sudden fiction (usually a little over 1000 words)

  • Short short story or flash fiction (up to around 1000  words)

  • Postcard fiction (between 250 and 500 words, or as much as can fit on a postcard!)

  • Microfiction (usually under 300 words)

To deliver a quick and convenient message, feeling, or idea.

Final Flash Fiction Quiz

Question

What is Flash Fiction?

Show answer

Answer

Flash fiction is a very short story that despite its brevity still has characters and a plot.

Show question

Question

Give some examples of flash fiction writers.

Show answer

Answer

Somerset Maugham, Kate Chopin, H. H. Munro (Saki).

Show question

Question

Saki’s short story ‘The Open Window’ is about 1,214 words long; what category of flash fiction does it fit?


Show answer

Answer

Sudden fiction.

Show question

Question

Kate Chopin’s story ‘Dr Chevalier’s Lie’ is 385  words long; what category of flash fiction does it fit?

Show answer

Answer

Postcard fiction.

Show question

Question

What is a pentadrabble?

Show answer

Answer

A pentadrabble is exactly 500 words long.

Show question

Question

True or false? ‘Baby carriage for sale. Never used’ is a six-word story written by Ernest Hemingway.


Show answer

Answer

 False. It’s a 1921 advertisement from a newspaper called Brooklyn Home Talk.

Show question

Question

True or false? A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Flash fiction can be divided into subcategories based on _____ including: _____ fiction, postcard fiction, and _____fiction.

Show answer

Answer

Flash fiction can be divided into subcategories based on length

including: sudden fiction, postcard fiction, and microfiction.


Show question

Question

Complete the following: Hint Fiction is a story in _____ words that suggests or ‘hints at’  a _____ and more _____ story.

Show answer

Answer

Hint Fiction is a story in 25 words that suggests or ‘hints at’  a bigger and more complex story.

Show question

Question

True or false? The term flash fiction evolved in the 1980s, although the form goes back to ancient times.

Show answer

Answer

False: The term flash fiction evolved in the 1990s, although the form goes back to ancient times.

Show question

Question

What is a #Twaiku?

Show answer

Answer

#Twaiku (from TWitter and hAIKU) is a haiku posted on Twitter.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: _____ is a portmanteau of _____ and literature, comprising poems and fiction of up to _____ characters. 

Show answer

Answer

Twitterature is a portmanteau of Twitter and literature, comprising poems and fiction of up to 280 characters. 

Show question

Question

 A writing competition will accept submissions of exactly 300 words in length. What kind of flash fiction would this be?

Show answer

Answer

A trabble, which is a subcategory of microfiction.

Show question

Question

True or false? Mark Twain’s ‘A Telephonic Conversation’ is 810 words long and qualifies as postcard fiction.

Show answer

Answer

False: Mark Twain’s ‘A Telephonic Conversation’ is 810 words long and qualifies as flash fiction or short short story. 

Show question

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