What is flash fiction?

When asked to name a favorite work of fiction, most people list a novel, or occasionally a short story. Flash fiction rarely makes the cut—maybe it feels too wild, too condensed, or too unconventional. For others, that’s part of its appeal. In this modern era of fast-paced storytelling and sound bites, flash fiction actually fits right in. This unique and powerful genre has plenty to offer writers and readers who crave something a little different.

So what exactly is it? Flash fiction refers to a brief, contained story ranging from 5 to 1,500 words (not to exceed 2,000 words, otherwise it enters short story territory). Stories that are 1,000 words or less are typically considered microfiction. Depending on which literary circles you run in, you may also hear other names or sub-genres tossed around: short shorts, sudden fiction, micro-stories, postcard fiction, nanotales, or napkin fiction.

No matter what you call them, these tiny literary treasures have big potential. Writers use flash fiction to explore all kinds of themes and narratives—from science fiction, fantasy, and horror to romance, adventure, and mystery. The only limit is your imagination.

What are the origins of flash fiction?

Compact stories are not necessarily a new invention, since modern day short fiction can be traced all the way back to the concise yet powerful format of classic folklore, fables, and parables. (Think: Aesop’s Fables from ancient Greece, or Grimms’ Fairy Tales from nineteenth-century Germany.) The short story form has evolved through the generations, gaining momentum in the early 1900s as magazine publishing flourished, and enjoying another wave of popularity with post-war literary fiction after 1945.

Writers continued to test the limits of narrative, and eventually carved out a bold new genre. These ultra-short stories burst onto the scene with shiny new labels—first, it was Sudden Fiction, a 1989 anthology edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, followed by the Norton anthology Flash Fiction a few years later. Some critics might argue that the medium of Twitter has opened up yet another version of micro-storytelling in 280 characters or less!  

Compact stories

What are the key elements of flash fiction?

Aside from having a maximum page count, flash fiction is about challenging expectations and testing boundaries. These supremely short works tend to highlight deep truths and universal emotions, so they are often playful, exciting, edgy, bizarre, dramatic, and experimental.

Flash fiction does not rely on traditional plot structure or character development, because each sentence has to do the work of several paragraphs or pages. Every character, object, image, and action reveals something new, so writing with precision and specificity is essential. No room for tangents or long-winded descriptions here!

Flash fiction makes up for its short form by packing a punch in the storyline. Surprise endings marked by a shocking reveal, moment of triumph, sudden violence, or a twist of fate are common.

Flash fiction often involves a suprise ending.

Tips for writing flash fiction

Flash fiction can be a good exercise for new writers who want to dip their toe into story writing, and a great way for experienced authors to practice crafting succinct, powerful prose. Some authors may even use flash fiction to help them transition from writing poetry to fiction, or vice versa. Here are some ways to get the most out of your flash fiction:

  • Focus on one moment or scene.
  • Start with the height of the action.
  • Include a hook to grab the reader’s attention, followed by a conflict or turning point.
  • Keep the beginning clear, and save any ambiguity or mystery for the end. 
  • Tell a story. There may not be room for a complex plot, but you still need to build action and tension.
  • Use tone of voice to convey a strong emotion or mood.
  • Simplify dialogue and limit characters (one or two is usually enough).
  • Cut the backstory.
  • Try first person point of view.
  • Craft each sentence like you mean it (use precise nouns and verbs, go easy on the adjectives).
  • Avoid clichés and obvious scenarios. Instead, opt for unusual images, sensory language, and original figures of speech.
  • Choose a great title.

When done well, flash fiction can be memorable, and even magical. When done poorly, it can easily disappoint (but at least it’s over fast!).

Try to incorporate an element of mystery

What are some examples of flash fiction?

In addition to publishing short stories, novellas, and novels, these writers have created notable works of flash fiction. For example:

  • Lydia Davis, “The Outing”
  • George Saunders, “Sticks”
  • Amy Hempel, “Housewife”
  • Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings”
  • Joy Williams, “Aubade”
  • Stuart Dybek, “Initiation”
  • Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”
  • Paulo Coelho, “Rebuilding the World”
  • Lucy Corin, “Miracles”
  • H.P. Lovecraft, “Memory”
  • Ernest Hemingway, “Chapter V”
  • Joyce Carol Oates, “Widow’s First Year”

Writing flash fiction doesn’t require a big investment in time, so there’s no reason not to try! If your story grows into something larger, check out tips for writing short stories and novellas.

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