Advice, Flash Fiction, Magical Realism, Speculative Fiction

What is Flash Fiction?

If you’ve been writing for a while, you already know what flash fiction is, but if you’re somewhat new to writing, you may not have heard of this liberating form. Man, are you gonna love it! My students do!

Sheets of paper sit on a writing desk with a magnifying glass on top. Decorative.
Photo by cottonbro on

Flash fiction is very short fiction – between 50-750 words, and it goes by a few different names, micro-fiction and short-shorts. It embraces extreme compression and is a literary hybrid between a short story and poem. It tends to bend, explode and reinvent genres and most writing rules. As H.K Hummel and Stepnanie Lenox say in Short-Form Creative Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, it is “trangressive” by nature. Traditional story elements found in longer stories, such as complex character development and a series of reversals of fortune, don’t always apply to flash. Nevertheless, they have an internal logic that makes them tick, and when you miss that logic, they fall flat.

One of the reasons I love the form so much is that it forces you to put every word under the microscope to see if it’s really needed. A few years of writing and grading flash fiction has made me much more confident about editing longer works, including novels.

A great online journal to explore the form is Wigleaf (linked here). Every year, they pick fifty very short stories they consider the best of year (one of mine was picked in 2015).

Usually, the trick is to write about the last few seconds of an event, as Joanne Avallon does in “All This,” a copy of which can be found at this link, also anthologized in the text above, published by Bloomsbury. This story provides us with the anatomy of a moment’s revelation when a woman’s three-year-old bites her and she slaps the child. Between the hand drawing back and the hand hitting the child, so much happens, and yet the whole thing is only 244 words — less than a page.

The most common mistake students make when attempting flash is to try to cram too much into the short form, resulting in bland summary. Nevertheless, it can be done if you use the fable form, as we see in the story “Row” by Charmaine Wilkerson, available here, about how a civilization responds to climate change. The story is only 100 words. The reason it works is that it uses third person plural, in which the people go from minor to major denial, and it uses just the right amount of concise detail: they “eat cactus and fried lizards” and they “tie their rowboats to the higher branches.”

Another exciting thing about the form is that experimentation appears to be inherent. Lydia Davis, who said she could never master the conventional short story form, found liberation in flash fiction. All those things you’ve written in which you can’t quite identify the problem — or don’t quite know how to turn into a short story– turn out to be great flash fiction. A great example of an experimental form is “Three Ways of Saying the Same Thing” by Leonora Desar. It is just what it says it is, three paragraphs, each with their own subtitle, that talk about states of non-being, but which also employ surrealism or fabulsm (also called magic realism), as we see from the first line: “One day my boss was talking to me and I just disappeared.”

So, I hope you enjoy this brief introduction and dip your toes in soon.

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