If you’re looking for the definitive definition of Flash Fiction, you’ll find it right next to the universal recipes for goulash, chilli, and barbecue sauce. What I’m trying to say—for those of you who use your stove for counter space—there ain’t no such thing.
Hell, Flash Fiction may not even be its proper name. Some call it Sudden Fiction, some Short-Short, others know it as Urgent, Imperative, and Zip, among others. And there are dozens, if not hundreds, of rival entities each claiming exclusive sovereignty over the delineation and administration of this stubbornly nebulous form.
To be fair, whatever the name, these forms all share these three quasi-common denominator requirements: Brevity, Precision, Surprise. Ah, finally we’re getting someplace, right? Don’t be so sure. The world of extra short fiction continues to be a realm of arbitrary decrees complicated by un-agreed upon degrees. Confused? Join the club and have a drink on me.
Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to disseminate what little I know. For clarity’s sake, and for the protection of my dubious sanity, let’s put all the short-short story forms under one tent, and refer to them collectively as Flash Fiction for now. If you agree to that, we can go on to explore the three sacred poles that appear to give this tent its distinctive form.
Brevity: Everyone agrees Flash Fiction has to be short. But as writers, we all know ‘short’ is a relative term. Compared to War and Peace, Crime and Punishment is short, right? Not according to the definitions of Flash I’ve encountered. Depending on who you’re talking to, short can mean anywhere from seventy-five words to two thousand. I don’t mean to quibble, but for a form that claims to champion precision as well as brevity, I consider more the nineteen- hundred words a mighty sloppy spread.
Precision: If you’ll permit me to continue with my snide irony theme here, I’d like to point out that the Keepers of The Flash can’t even be precise when defining precision. All proponents of Flash say, ‘Make every word count.’ And that’s fine, as far as it goes. All serious writers learn the knack of paring, right? But once again, it is the matter of degree upon which the various Flash Fiction camps disagree. The more liberal contingencies merely require a story be sparse, and tightly edited. The more radical proponents (I call them Flashionistas) have gone so far as to condemn the use of all adverbs, the word ‘just’ and anything ending in ‘ly’. No, I’m not exaggerating. Today adverbs, tomorrow … prepositions?
Surprise: Virtually all Flash aFictionados agree that this genre requires an ending twist, or payoff—an unexpected resolution. A punchline if you will. But, true to form, there is disagreement about degrees in this area as well. I recently received a ‘no thank you’ from a New York outfit that specializes in Flash. The editor kindly told me my piece had been shortlisted toward publication, but was ultimately rejected because on the fourth reading it was deemed my ending was ‘too tricky.’ I don’t know how a story can get trickier with subsequent readings, but this pole seems to be judged by arbitrary degree as well.
In closing, let me just suggest that if you elect to play in the short-short story sandbox, remember there is no such (single) thing as Flash Fiction. Decrees and degrees aside, it is all in the eye of the beholder.
Just for the fun of it, tell us if the following meets your requirements for Flash Fiction.
Clel leaned on his shovel. “I don’t much care for diggin’ graves when it’s folks I know, Jonesy. And I know’d Miss Eulah near all my life.”
Jones kept digging. “We all die, Clel.”
“But don’t it willie you none, diggin’ peoples’ graves?”
“It’s a livin’, Clel. That’s all. Now how ‘bout pitchin’ in, we got at least another foot to go.”
Clel bent to the task. “Eulah sure was sweet—for a rich lady.”
When they finished digging, Jones climbed out of the hole. “Go on, Clel. Open it up. Let’s see what kinda baubles she took with her.”
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