[For the OxfordWords blog:] Flash fiction: short stories with a long lifespan

Here’s a tongue-twister of a question: just how short should a short story be?

When it comes to word count, the literary short story has always resisted absolute rules. Outside the specifications of individual publishers, there’s no real definitive guide to how long a ‘short’ story should be.

Instead, it could be more useful to think of a short story as a standalone work that can, as Edgar Allen Poe said, be “read at one sitting” – or as a tale that has been whittled down to its essentials in a way that makes it “almost impossible… to summarize”. Or, perhaps, to consider the defining element of a short story as not so much its length, but its effect. It could be argued that the best short stories resonate in the mind for long after the last word has been read, triggering a “complexity of afterthought” in the reader.

In short order

Given the nebulous nature of the short story form, it’s not surprising that several sub-genres have sprung up in recent decades with word counts that are more sharply defined. Since Anton Chekhov is widely considered the original “supreme artist of the short story”, it’s nice to picture these sub-genres as a series of Russian dolls, each one fitting neatly inside the other.

The term flash fiction is typically used for stories of under 1000 words, while microfiction usually describes compact creations of fewer than 300. A drabble is precisely 100 words, and a dribble is half that length. Shrinking further down into nanofiction, twitterature aims to tweet us tales in just 140 characters. The common feature of these sub-genres is compression: inside each ever-decreasing doll is an ever-tinier example of what we consider a story to be. And we aren’t likely to go short in the near future: flash fiction is increasingly popular with readers year on year.

The long and the short of it

Since the labels above are relatively recent coinages, it might be tempting to jump to the somewhat pessimistic conclusion that flash fiction is the inevitable end result of our increasingly limited attention spans. I would argue differently: that while the names are new, tiny tales have long been part of our literary history. Take, for example, the classic:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

This small but perfectly-formed story is usually attributed (many think mistakenly) to Ernest Hemingway, but is thought to have been inspired by the newspaper adverts of the early twentieth century and has left its legacy in arguably the smallest sub-genre of all, the Six-Word Story, still tackled by authors today.

However, more popular pieces of petite prose can be traced much further back in time: this English translation of Aesop’s fable ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ could be classed as a minute piece of microfiction at 142 words, for example, while this version of the Biblical parable ‘The Good Samaritan’ would file neatly into flash.

Other cultures, too, have their own wee writings: French journalist Félix Fénéon’s minuscule musings on the news of the day were a century too soon for Twitter, where they have since found a home. In Japan, a rich history of miniature forms (of which the haiku is just one example) has evolved into the current trend for (longer) stories to be texted and digested one lingering line at a time, via cellphone. It’s thought that the relative conciseness of the Japanese language makes this easier than it sounds.

In short, short shorts, to use the traditional publishing term, have been with us for some time. So why are these little slices of literature having a moment in the twenty-first century?

To cut a long story short

For digitally literate readers with dizzying lives, the very short story is convenient – the brevity of such tales suits the smartphone well. More satisfyingly, flash fiction is not only fun to read, but should pack a powerful punch that “rewards you disproportionately for your time”.

For writers, crafting flash fiction can be a tantalizing challenge, a refreshing change of scene, or, more pragmatically, a way of keeping several plates of potential “spinning in the air”.

A short, sharp shock

The diminutive dimensions of very short fiction are appealing not only to readers and writers, but also to the judges of the many flourishing flash fiction contests. A good piece of flash often has a title that pulls its weight, a strong opening line, a touch of the unusual (and often the macabre), and sometimes a twist that leaves the reader reeling from what feels like a “punch in the gut”. Unlike a poem, flash fiction should clearly have a plot – but unlike a longer story, it might discard scene setting to “jump right in” to the heart of the action.

Short and sweet

While flash fiction may appear deceptively simple, the truth is closer to Isabel Allende’s observation that “the shorter [it is], the more difficult it is” to write. Some writers rely on particular tricks of the trade; all writers, however, stress the key element of editing, cutting, and whittling a story down to its essence. The analogies abound: if the novel is a three-course meal, a shard of flash is a rich chocolate truffle. If the novel is a richly-woven bedspread, a nano-narrative is literary lacework. If the novel is a tiger, the tiny tale is – well, I’ll let you guess.

A few chapters short of a novel

Meanwhile, here are some good examples of freely available:

This article was originally published as Flash fiction: short stories with a long lifespan on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, OxfordWords, on April 5, 2017

One Reply to “[For the OxfordWords blog:] Flash fiction: short stories with a long lifespan”

  1. Short but eloquent. You really have a gift Joanne to write in a mentally stimulating way. Behind the facade of your prose lies a labyrinth of informed thought (discoverable via your hyperlinks) which you synthesise just sufficiently (efficiently and very effectively) to allow the reader to assimilate the diversity of your content. The cynic might say “So what?” or “How does this advance the way of the world” (may be too many words there?). I would argue that that cynic would ask the same question of all fiction, art and music that feeds the mind and the soul. (Shakespeare would brand the cynic “dark as Erebus” – Merchant of Venice). In short, Joanne, well done! Your words on words were infinitely more enjoyable to read than I recall Henry Fielding’s ‘Chapter on chapters’ in ‘Tom Jones’ way back in my sixth form days. Keep it coming.

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