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For certain, almost always, rarely never, flash fiction demands a word count, not the outdated kind once done by counting words per line of type and multiplying by the number of lines, but the precise count of technology. 100 exactly.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 here perhaps of what remains after a story’s been casted; imagine the part someone thought didn’t matter. Imagine it is.
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.