Sunday 17 April 2011

Some Thoughts on Flash Fiction...

Website stats are wonderful things, although they can steal a huge amount of time as you puzzle over what it is that made one post more popular than another, or why people click on one link you posted but not the one next to it. Anyway, I’ve noticed that a fair bit of traffic to this site has been coming from Guernsey recently, and just in case that’s down to people reading about next month’s Flash Fiction workshop and wondering what exactly that might involve, I thought I’d post something to elaborate on the subject. I hope it helps.

I was originally going to call this post “A Guide to Flash Fiction”, or something similar, but realised this would be misleading. For a start, having a guide to something suggests that thing is fixed, that it can be defined and whatever you say about it can be proven, or at least backed up with plenty of evidence. You could write a guide to a town, for instance, and although people could debate whether or not you’ve highlighted the best or most important aspects of the town in question, it’s very unlikely that somebody would come along and say that you’re actually writing about the wrong place entirely, or that what you’ve described as historic shop fronts are in fact modern factories.

Flash fiction isn’t easy to pin down. As a definition, it isn’t fixed - it warps and changes according to individual interpretations. It goes by several aliases, too – short-short stories, microfiction, quick reads, coffee time stories, etc, etc, depending on the market for which it’s intended. And flash fiction can also be taken to mean fast fiction - stories and other creative writing produced within a set length of time, typically half an hour or so. This alternative definition (with the “flash” referring to the speed of the writing, rather than the reading, part of the process) can be a useful means of generating ideas and the occasional killer line, but for me work produced in this way can only ever be a first draft, it never feels like a finished article. So, I’m focusing on the more usual interpretation, with the emphasis on the number of words rather than the speed of the story’s creation. As an example of this, my story, Falling From Grace, which won the October TxtLit competition last year, is 28 words long but took nearly a whole day to write.

So, where does the boundary lie between short fiction and flash fiction? Opinions vary. Basically, there is no hard and fast rule that states a story is flash up to a certain word count and a short story above that length – in the same way as there is not really a clear definition of how much longer a novel is than a novella. However, I think it’s safe to say that if a story is a thousand words or less (very approximately two sides of A4 in a normal-sized font), nobody's going to object to you calling that flash fiction. Every Day Fiction and FlashFictionOnline are two online publications that work to this definition. Other places are a bit more stringent – the annual Biscuit Publishing Flash Fiction competition specifies stories no longer than 750 words, and Flash500, as the name suggests, wants 500 words or less. There’s no real consensus, so it’s probably better to forget a specific size and just think 'short'.

However many words there are in your flash fiction, the main thing to bear in mind is that it should still be a story. That means it has a beginning, a middle, and an end – although they don’t necessarily have to be in that order, and they don’t always need to be explicitly spelled out in the text itself (sometimes there isn’t room for this anyway, and you have to rely on subtle hints that allow the reader to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle).

Another way of thinking of the different ingredients of a story is that it needs: (i) A Challenge, (ii) A Response/Reaction, and (iii) A Result. Essentially, something should happen that changes the circumstances of at least one character in the story and it should be clear how this has affected / will affect them. I suppose I’m a traditionalist at heart, and I tend to prefer stories where there’s a definite change from one state of affairs to another. Often I read pieces that are essentially just setting up a (sometimes) clever twist ending, often relying on a 'revelation' that - if known at the beginning - would make the story utterly banal and tedious (e.g. the dreaded "The Narrator was a Cat All Along!" ending). At the other end of the scale are those where the whole thing is basically a character sketch, full of quirky detail but lacking in narrative drive. Make sure something happens and you’ll keep your reader (well, this one at least) happy!

This is just a very brief overview, and I’ll be coming back to look at those story elements in more detail later. For now, I hope that this has shed a little light on the subject for those new to the concept, whilst if you already write flash and think I’m way off the mark with these suggestions then I’d love to hear from you.

Happy flashing!

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