What is flash fiction? Exact definitions can vary by specific market, but generally, complete stories of fewer than 1,500, 1,000, 500 or even 300 words can be classified as flash fiction.
Other terms play companionably in the same sandbox, including short-short stories, immediate fiction, sudden fiction and microfiction, though their definitions overlap and publishers’ uses of them often vary just as widely as the word limits do. In a nutshell: Many publishers and writers use short-shorts, immediate fiction and sudden fiction interchangeably to reference works of 500–750 words, while microfiction often refers to stories of fewer than 400 words. Flash stories can fall under any genre; publishers in the sci-fi, fantasy, horror and even literary realms notably have embraced the inherent creativity of the format.
Why would I want to write flash fiction?
Flash fiction slush piles tower as high as those for longer forms, but the rewards are similar — and with a flash story, you’ve likely spent less time writing and revising. Opportunities run the whole gamut of publishers, and flash publishing credits can count toward those you need to qualify for membership in professional writing organizations such as the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. And no matter what you write, stringent word limits can challenge and sharpen your skills in ways that can improve even your long-form work.
Can I really write a story with character and plot development in so few words?
Yes, but you’ll need to take a smart approach. The best flash fiction stories feature:
FEW CHARACTERS: Describing eight characters will blow your word count. You’re better off with three or fewer well-drawn characters than with eight
DESCRIPTIONS THAT SHOW RATHER THAN TELL: This rule of writing is especially important in flash fiction because your goal is to maximize the impact of each passage. Paint your characters and action with small, vivid scenes.
THE VERBAL EFFICIENCY OF A POET: As five-time Hugo Award–winner Mike Resnick says, “Brevity is not just the soul of wit; it is damned hard work.” Resnick’s words remind me of a Blaise Pascal apology (translated): “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” And here is Hemingway’s often-cited six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Can you help but wonder about the parents and what happened to the baby? Strive for that kind of big impact in a small package.
CLEAR VISION: As Jake Freivald, editor of Flash Fiction Online, says, “The best flash fiction is complete. That means that a perfect opening line isn’t enough — you need a great ending, too. In 100 or 500 or 1,000 words, you have to get inside your reader’s head, have an intellectual and emotional impact, and stop. All too often we read submissions and think, But what happened then?” To avoid this, you need a clear vision of where the story is heading. What happens to the main character? Does she have a distinctive voice? What is the climax and resolution?
Be realistic about what you can accomplish in such a short piece. The reader and writer of flash fiction share a small but intimate space. You can’t paint characters, places and times as thoroughly as you might in a full-length story, but a few elements done well will meet your reader’s expectations.
Who publishes flash fiction? As with any other genre, you can find markets for flash fiction on resources like WritersMarket.com and duotrope.com, which allows you to search by genre, story length and other factors to track down hundreds of specialty and mainstream publications that have an interest in the form. Flash reprint anthologies are also a small — but growing — market. And there are contests, too — an Internet search for “flash fiction contest” will yield many opportunities.