Flash Fiction, Explained

Flash Fiction, Explained
Kit O’Neill

Flash. Micro. Sudden . Lightning.  Nano. Short-short. Super-short.
6. 55. 140. 700. 1000. 1500. 2000.

The terms and numbers above are commonly used to define- and debate- the super short story. Flash fiction is neither new nor emerging; it is an older form of writing (think Aesop’s Fables) that lends itself well to modern writing and technology. From Twitter fiction, to chapbooks, to literary and academic publications, flash fiction’s appeal stretches around the globe, from Japan, to Europe, to South America.  Although opinions may differ on length, what is consistent is that flash fiction differs from the short story. One begs to ask, “What exactly is flash fiction, and how does it differ from a short story?”

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway observed “if a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about, he may omit things he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” In flash fiction, the fat has been trimmed from the writing. Hemingway claimed that his best work was a story of six words: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”  His story, now the fodder of urban legends, is regarded as one the best examples of flash fiction. “Baby Shoes” works; it is a complete story, with characters, conflict, and resolution.  Why, then, is “Baby Shoes” flash fiction, and not just a short story?

Dr. William Nelles, an English professor at University of Massachusetts, provides an excellent answer in his essay, “Microfiction: What Makes a Very Short Story Very Short?” He identifies six traits that separate flash fiction from short stories, as follows:

  1. Action is tangible and intense.
  2. Characters are anonymous,“less important than action/circumstance/situation.
  1. Setting is recognizable, familiar, and practically non-existent; the story takes place anywhere- any room, any house, any park, any bar, etc.
  2. Time is short and concise.
  3. May draw from known works (ie: fairy tales, Bible stories, Shakespeare, pop culture)
  4. Closure is Definitive and Resolute.


Fiction writer Harvey Stanbrough, in his article, “Sharpen Your Skills with Flash Fiction,” adds another element to Dr. Nelle’s list: suggestion. In flash fiction, character, conflict, and setting are implied; readers flush out the story with their own knowledge and experience. Specific names, details, and setting, integral components to short stories and novels, are not necessary to flash fiction. Because flash fiction is compact, including specifics slow the story.

Flash fiction, as Stanbrough notes, is not a vignette. In vignettes, the stories are ongoing, without closure. Flash fiction, even when ending in a twist or surprise, is finite and closed. Vignettes are like tableau photography, representing a slice of time, or one piece of a larger story. Flash fiction, as both Stanbrough and Dr. Nelles note, is like Impressionist painting, capturing feelings, space, and movement in a complete story.

Flash. Micro. Sudden. Lightning. Nano. Short-short. Super short.
6. 26. 140. 700. 1500. 2000.

Regardless of its name and word length, flash fiction is serious writing. Its compact structure, unique traits, modern format, and adaptability make flash fiction fun, informative, and entertaining, for writers and readers alike. Hemingway, no doubt, would agree.

Works Cited:

Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon New York: Scribner, 1932. Web. 23 January 2016.

Nelles, William. “Microfiction: What Makes a Very Short Story Very Short?” Narrative 20:1(2012): 87-104. Academic Search Premier. Web.23 January 2016.

Stanbrough, Harvey. “Sharpen your skills with flash fiction: Flash fiction is not only enjoyable to write, but a good learning tool for improving your work.” Writer 120:1 (2007): 34-37. Humanities International Complete. Web. 23 January 2016.

Recommended Readings:

“Popular Mechanics”- Raymond Carver

“A Continuity of Parks”- Julio Cortazar

“Girl”- Jamaica Kincaid

“Mother”- Grace Paley

Flash Fiction International