Flash Fiction: for writers, readers, editors, publishers, & fans


The Definitive Flash: Fifty Shades of (Very) Short Fiction

For certain, almost always, rarely never, flash fiction demands a word count, not the outdated kind once done by counting words per line of type and multiplying by the number of lines, but the precise count of technology. 100 exactly. Not a word more than 750. At some point (500 or less?) it’s microfiction, a few words more it’s sudden fiction, then flash. Or maybe it’s flash then sudden? At a 1000+ word count, it’s most likely, but not always, going to the short story editor. Go figure.

In writing of the one-line poem, Michael McFee argues that it “is not a longer poem condensed, a larger block of text whittled down.” It is, he asserts, “a product of deliberate pressure, not a casual or accidental creation.” The author must “conceive of his material that way, must write it that way, and must mean for the audience to hear and/or read it that way.” The word count requirement of flash fiction misleads authors into thinking of flash as a short story told with fewer words. It might be that. It might be other things, too.

The best flash writers perhaps set out to write flash fiction. They don’t end up with a flash piece because something longer failed. Maybe sometimes they do. I’d like to think they begin with the idea of brevity, a very tiny space, think of how largely they might fill it.

It’s a cop-out, in the current world of postmodern sensibilities, to say that nothing can be defined. In such a world, boundaries don’t exist, but what is more bounded than flash fiction, confined by that continual count of word after word. Flash fiction ticks, like bombs and clocks, aware of its end before its birth. What is flash fiction?

It’s this. And more. And less.

Fifty Words on Fifty Definitions of Flash (definitions from Dictionary.com)

1. a brief, sudden burst of bright light: a flash of lightning.

Out of nothing, first struck and burning out simultaneously, into the middle of things, when the ho-hum turns extraordinary, gone “ere one can say it lightens.” Brief, sudden, bursting, and bright. Crackling with energy. The story expends itself--and the world returns as it appeared that brief, unblinding moment before.

2. a sudden, brief outburst or display of joy, wit, etc.

In flash, the writer has little time for consolidation. The flash releases something pent up--and that thing beats its way toward the nearest exist. Flash might be the thing itself instead of its representation. It might be the very thing you wish you hadn’t said. But there it is, beating.

3. a very brief moment; instant: I’ll be back in a flash.

In life, the “in a flash” always ends up being longer than promised. In writing, flash keeps its promise of brevity and instance. It’s back before you have time to miss it, unlike the lover whom you’re waiting for, still, as the movie begins and jujubes stick to your enamel.

4. Informal. flashlight.

Some prefer what the light emits; others what it omits. There’s always an elephant in the room, though, and the light of flash might not be able to shine upon all of its parts. The tusks might be too obvious for some; the toenail, too obscure.

The tail, just right.

5. superficial, meretricious, or vulgar showiness; ostentatious display.

Every flash risks superficiality, a display of how little it takes to be a writer, how easy it is to get something down. Prompts go up, hours later flash after flash on display. If they are brilliant, they are as newly minted coins, at least as shiny, worth sometimes more.

6. Also called news flash. Journalism. a brief dispatch sent by a wire service.

Again, “brief” becomes defining, a brief bit of news, written in a rush, dispatched, sent off to far-off places. And what news might flash transmit? Something urgent perhaps. Not like Gas Prices Skyrocket! More like “Lonely!” And the rest follows, before anyone has the time to say, “So what?”

7. Photography. a. bright artificial light thrown briefly upon a subject during an exposure. b. flash lamp. c. flashbulb. d. flashtube.

Exposure! Unlike “Girls Gone Wild” but instead, a sharp light revealing the tiniest imperfections. As Gulliver perceived, a tiny thing among giants, unable to bear the sights. A flash going off during a show. Why now? What does it hope to capture?

8. the sudden flame or intense heat produced by a bomb or other explosive device.

Hitchcock said to show the audience the bomb right away, but some flash writers prefer the thing to go off unannounced. It’s not always a bomb that appears to give flash a twist. Guns, accidents, ghosts, even aliens pop up in endings.

I say, “Show da bomb; be da bomb.”

9. a sudden thought, insight, inspiration, or vision.

The myth of epiphanies, that they must be found in the world, incited by instability, earned through action. What of the insight found in stillness and absence? The vision of peace pipes? The thought emerging from watching birches bent by winter? Can flash capture that and still engage a reader?

10. Slang. rush.

Writers, not flashes, rush to the end, the end of the anxiety of uncertainty, of wondering in all tenses, “Is it good? Was it good? Will it be good?” And thus we rush on, knowing it all must end soon, and that maybe, just maybe, we can last ‘til then.

11. Metallurgy. a. a ridge of metal left on a casting by a seam between parts of the mold. b. a ridge formed at the edge of a forging or weld where excess metal has been squeezed out.

What forms from squeezing out excess? What is left after compression? Imagine what remains after a story’s been cast; imagine the part someone thought didn’t matter. Imagine it does.

12. Poker. a hand containing all five suits in a game played with a five-suit pack.

What would be that fifth suit? Write about it.

Like now.

13. a device, as a lock or sluice, for confining and releasing water to send a boat down a shallow stream.

Again, that sense of confinement first, followed by release. Send your flash-boat out, from rill to ocean.

14. the rush of water thus produced.

Producing a “flash” produces a rush that produces what? Here I begin to think of readers encountering the flash; it hits readers not drowning them but carrying them to a far different place.

15. hot flash.

It is the change in “you” that now makes it seem like the world has become too warm. The feeling comes and goes. Windows get opened; air conditioners get turned up. It isn’t the world that’s changed. Give a character an environment that feels suddenly too hot to handle. Make the character think the problem exists in the world.

What would make the character realize the truth of all stories, that the monster lies within?

16. Obsolete. the cant or jargon of thieves, vagabonds, etc.

One of the challenges of flash is get readers to identify with characters in a short time; also it’s how to place readers within a different world when there’s no time to do it. Every group has its own way of talking; every person has their own way of expressing things. Use the particularities or “cant” of speech to get readers immersed and identified.

17. to break forth into sudden flame or light, esp.transiently or intermittently.

Sudden fiction is one name flash fiction goes by.

That idea of transience and intermittence seems part of flash’s identity. Why not use flash to capture something that, like itself, goes for one bright burst rather than a steady dim glow.

18. to gleam.

That’s a cool word. Use gleam in a flash. Make it the title. “Gleam.” Now write.

19. to burst suddenly into view or perception: The answer flashed into his mind.

Flash struggles with showing significant change in such a short space. Find that moment when a character sees something before understanding it, that moment when something hidden now comes into view. Imagine the boy at the end of Joyce’s “Araby”: I saw myself as a creature. What can your character now see in a flash?

20. to move like a flash.

I think of the superhero Flash, and isn’t “flashness” a quality shared by many superheroes and superheroines. Think of your flash as being one of these superbeings. What can it do that other writings cannot? How is its “flashness” something super?

21. to speak or behave with sudden anger, outrage, or the like (often fol. by out): to flash out at a stupid remark.

That sudden angry punch or plate thrown against a wall often feels out-of-place within the confines of flash. Of course, anyone can make anything work in a flash fiction piece. But flash sometimes works best to capture the unrealized sudden outburst, focusing instead on something more subtle.

22. to break into sudden action.

Flash writers sometimes come to flash to escape the need to write action scenes.

Instead, you will come to flash with a character in the midst of a suddenly unexpected and necessary action. Go!

23. Slang. to open one’s clothes and expose the genitals suddenly, and usually briefly, in public.

Isn’t this what we all first imagine when someone says that they are a “flasher”?

Expose yourself in public. Show us what lies underneath the trench coat. And when that coat opens, surprise us by what we find inside.

24. Slang. to experience the intense effects of a narcotic or stimulant drug.

Inhale. Deeply.

25. to dash or splash, as the sea or waves.

Our someone is drowning. Save our someone.

26. Archaic. to make a flash or sudden display.

How do we get our flashes to flash? I don’t think it’s necessarily by showing off our writing brilliance.

I think it has something do with the subtle surprise, the light found not at the end of the tunnel necessarily but where no one else was looking.

27. to emit or send forth (fire or light) in sudden flashes.

Help me! Help me! Help me! Imagine a character stranded somewhere. Help them!

28. to cause to flash, as powder by ignition or a sword by waving.

A fight! Imagine characters fighting with weapons never before seen in a story.

Imagine the setting where they’d find these things. Flash it out.

29. to send forth like a flash.

Written in a flash, revised in a flash, sent forth in a flash, published in a flash, remembered forever.

30. to communicate instantaneously, as by radio or telegraph.

Instantaneous is a cool word to associate with flash. So is telegraph. Imagine someone communicating with something outdated or odd. Imagine that someone is you; imagine the odd thing is your flash fiction.

31. to make an ostentatious display of: He’s forever flashing a large roll of bills.

He forever flashes cash. Let that inspire you.

32. to display suddenly and briefly: She flashed her ID card at the guard.

Sudden and brief appears again and again, but here’s something new—display. Write about someone putting on some kind of display.

33. to change (water) instantly into steam by pouring or directing onto a hot surface.

Instant changes in characters are not to be believed by readers. No one changes in an instant. Have someone change the way water might instantly become steam by being poured onto a hot surface. Have readers believe that such instantaneous change is a possibility in the world.

34. to increase the flow of water in (a river, channel, etc.).

Remember playing in gutters during rain storms.
I remember walking up and down the street as a stream formed along the border of lawns and road. I got busy, removing leaves, creating channels. What do you remember?

35. Glassmaking and Ceramics. a. to coat (plain glass or a glass or ceramic object) with a layer of colored, opalescent, or white glass. b. to apply (such a layer). c. to color or make (glass) opaque by reheating.

This sounds like a process. Some people, I hear, barely revise their flashes. They came out fully baked. Many come out half-baked. Go find an old flash and revise it. Reheat it. Color it. Make it gleam.

36. Building Trades. to protect from leakage with flashing.

The compressed container of flash makes sure that not even a single word can leak out without changing everything. Or so the myth of flash persists. Write as many words as you can until one stops mattering.

37. Cards. to expose (a card) in the process of dealing.

Flashing cards! Do you love or hate when dealers do that? Flash writers seem to hold their cards closely, refusing to let readers see anything until that final twist at the end: Oh my God! I haven’t told you yet. But that girl I’ve been dating throughout the story. She’s really an alien! I bet you didn’t see that coming.

38. Archaic. to dash or splash (water).

Archaic. Write something archaic.

39. sudden and brief.

Are we getting to definitions we’ve seen before? This one feels familiar. Flash doesn’t like familiarity. Look for the familiar in your flashes.

Defamiliarize it.

40. showy or ostentatious.

Flash, with its emphasis on each word, does give writers the chance to be showy. All the how-tobooks tell us that such a show distracts. If we write something brilliantly, we surely must delete it. It isn’t about us; it’s about our characters.

Well, let’s say they’re wrong. Make this one about you! Strut your writerly stuff.

41. caused by or used as protection against flash: flash injuries; flash clothing.

I don’t know what this definition means, but I love the idea of flash injuries and flash clothing.

Have you ever been injured by flash? Does the world need to be protected from it? Yes, I love that idea.

42. counterfeit or sham.

That’s what my writerly voice calls out to me the moment I stop writing: You are a fraud! So don’t stop writing.

43. belonging to or connected with thieves, vagabonds, etc., or their cant or jargon.

Vagabonds. Write about a vagabond. Call the person a vagabond. I hope he or she doesn’t mind.

44. of or pertaining to followers of boxing, racing, etc.

That following is part of flash shouldn’t be too surprising. Is flash the thing that follows the lightning burst? Or is it the light itself? Write about a follower.

45. flash in the pan, a. a brief, intense effort that produces no really significant result. b.a person who makes such an effort; one who enjoys short-lived success.

Brief. Intense. It’s beginning to sound like my wedding night. Just joking. Not really. I am. Not.

No, seriously, I am. Not joking.

46. flash on, Slang. a. to have a sudden thought, insight, or inspiration about. b. to have a sudden, vivid memory or mental picture of: I just flashed on that day we spent at the lake. c.to feel an instantaneous understanding and appreciation of.

A character flashes on that day…

47. [Origin: 1350-1400; ME flasshen to sprinkle, splash, earlier flask(i) en; prob. phonesthemic in orig. ; cf. similar expressive words with fland -sh] Out of “flask” comes flash.

What unexpected thing might someone by carrying around right now in a flask?

Write that flash, using sprinkle and splash somewhere in the piece.

48. To flash is to send forth light with a sudden, transient brilliancy

Transient brilliancy. That captures the all of it.

49. flashy, gaudy, tawdry; pretentious, superficial.

Aren’t these great words? Trying using all of them in the next flash you write.

Make one of them the title.

50. false, fake.

They’ll say it’s a fake way to be a writer. They’ll say it’s a false way to make a writing career. You tell them to go flash themselves.

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