If you’ve read a writers’ magazine or visited an internet writing site in the past several years, you’ve seen the term flash fiction applied to a new category of writing. You really can’t escape it. Magazines and literary journals publish it. There are whole e-zines devoted to the stuff. But what, exactly, is it?
That’s a hard question. As a relatively new literary form, not everyone agrees on all the details. But here are a few things we know for sure.
First of all, it’s a short story. It contains a protagonist, a conflict, a crisis and a resolution/reveal. There is at least some dialogue. And in the end, the protagonist must solve a problem or experience a revelation. Pretty standard stuff so far, right?
Second, it’s short. Really short. Whereas a short story is generally defined as containing up to 7,000 words, flash fiction is currently capped by most editors at a mere thousand. Fair enough. But what makes a low word count story flash?
Flash fiction demands a unique writing style. It’s bare-bones writing. Brevity limits the number of characters to one or two, certainly no more than three. The time period covered is short, often moments. The conflict is defined just sentences before the climax occurs. Adjectives are kept to a necessary minimum. There is a raging controversy over the permissibility of adverbs. Some purists think they should be banned entirely. Others believe they are occasionally acceptable as long as they don’t substitute for strong verbs. Verbs are active and precise. Nouns are carefully varied.
In the example below, kindly supplied by writer Lee Allen Hill, notice how the story spans only moments in elapsed time. A few well placed sentences sum up the back story of a lifetime’s mediocrity and explain Sir Thomas’ conviction that this is the discovery that will give him the recognition he craves.
Pay attention to how carefully chosen adjectives and adverbs are present when needed. Verbs are passive in back story, but they are not only active in the present, they define the Sir Thomas character. The archaeologist mutters, mumbles, even cranes. And in the end, Sir Thomas announces his discovery to the reader in a moment of pure whimsy— character development continued to the very last, amazing sentence.
What the Bones Say
Lee Allen Hill
Sir Thomas Jade’s calloused hands work deliberately as he brushes off the skull, but his heart beats at a rate he hasn’t experienced in years.
He’s spent his entire adult life enduring the hardships and privations of archeological digs all over the globe in order to help enrich mankind’s knowledge of its murky past. But for all his effort, dedication, he has never managed to hit the big time—always a mere contributor, a guest, a footnote at digs organized by others more renowned, more celebrated than himself.
But now, in his seventieth year, he has made a momentous discovery that will etch his name alongside—perhaps ahead of—the other glory-hungry giants in his glory-starved field.
His long-held, but academically scorned, theory of Early Trans-Atlantic Migration is being validated and dusted clean before his very eyes. The ancient, nearly complete skeleton his archeologist’s brush is relentlessly revealing will rewrite conventional human history and inspire countless new avenues of discovery for centuries to come.
“Finally,” he mutters, “incontrovertible proof primitive man lived and thrived in North America long before the celebrated Paleo-Indian migration along the Siberian land bridge.” Yes, I like the sound of that.
Sir Thomas’ expert eye and preliminary field tests have already assured him the bones are at least 50,000 years old—obliterating conventional migration theories. What’s more, certain osteo-structural anomalies strongly suggest these remains represent a branch of mankind’s developmental tree never before unearthed. His excitement grows. The significance of this find cannot be overestimated.
“Monumental import,” he mumbles aloud as he painstakingly brushes away the last of the debris.
He is amazed by the condition of the specimen. Even where some of the actual bones have disintegrated, their detailed impressions remain in the fossilized sediment.
He leans back on his haunches and surveys all he’s uncovered. His eye drifts to the fossilized impression of the missing left hand. He realizes for the first time that the hand must have been holding some sort of primitive tool at the time of death. A remarkable bonus, in that the impression of the tool will provide invaluable information about the technological achievements gained by these, as yet unknown, people. He studies the impression closely, then leans back on his heels.
He cranes forward and examines the impression of the tool again.
“It can’t be,” he whispers. But he knows it can be nothing else.
He leans back once more and tries to fathom the mind-numbing ramifications of what he has just discovered.
He rocks back and forth on his heels. “Ladies and gentleman of The Academy,” he speaks to the air, “on a recent dig along the Burnside Ridge in North Dakota, I uncovered the well-preserved remains of a 50,000-year-old man … a man of a heretofore unclassified branch of the homo erectus tree … a man who died of unknown causes … while holding … an archaeologist’s brush.”
copyright 2012 by Lee Allen Hill
Next week, we’ll downsize flash fiction and take a look at its little brother, micro-flash.
copyright 2013 by N.K. Wagner