If you’ve been writing on the internet for a while, you might have come across the words “flash fiction.” Search for “flash fiction magazine,” and you’ll find dozens of devoted publications and contests. Flash fiction may have boomed in the last 10 years, but it isn’t new. So where did flash fiction come from? There’s a chance you already know. Think back to how we teach each other lessons, especially to children. That’s right, through fables and morals.
Logically, fables as the original form of flash fiction makes sense. Fables convey the maximum amount of information in the shortest length, usually with only a few characters and little exposition. An article from TSS Publishing by Sandra Arnold mentions other precursors to flash fiction including “oral traditions, parables, the myths in the Iliad and Odyssey, Aesop’s fables, the fables of the Middle East, and fairytales.” (The full article is worth reading.) It’s also worth noting that flash fiction was not isolated to 20th century Western culture. For example, the haibun—a Japanese short prose form—was first used in the 17th century.
Popular authors before the 1980s include Ernest Hemingway (In Our Time, 1925), Yasunari Kawabata (“palm-of-the-hand” stories), and Charles Baudelaire (“prose poetry,” Paris Spleen, 1869).
It seems the literary consciousness became attracted to the “short short” story in the beginning of the 1980s when Robert Shepard and James Thomas published the anthology Sudden Fiction. In the past four decades, flash fiction has gone by many names and, I believe, adapted for the times. Flash fiction, micro stories, short shorts, sudden fiction, drabbles—the list goes on. It wasn’t until the 90s that the term “flash fiction” became popularized.
I think it’s funny how we can’t figure out what to call this form of writing. In the same vein, there’s no definition that satisfies everyone. Some would say the best definition of flash fiction is “compressed” or “exact,” but I would describe it as “immediate.” The one requirement of flash fiction is that it be short, like really short. The shortest form is only six words long—and even that has been topped by “Widow’s First Year” by Joyce Carol Oates in a memoir of the same title.
The whole story goes: I kept myself alive.
Maximum word counts of flash fiction vary anywhere from 50 to 1,500 words.
For me, flash fiction also needs a narrative. Even something as small as getting from one thought to the next counts. You might have already written some kind of flash fiction in a text, tweet, or caption.
Finally I’d like to leave you with a piece of my own flash fiction (we love to avoid copyright). The prompt for this story was to only use one-syllabus words, and keep it under 100. The word count of this story is 96.
She left the club. It was dark and stale, had a crust of mold on the walls. She did not like it. She liked Rob, who brought her there. But Rob was gone now. Pale and slow on the old couch.
The night was cool with moon and wish. She would like a drink. Or some peace. The music thumped. The bus did not come soon. The bus would come at dawn.
A girl came to her.
"Want a smoke?"
"Sure, I'll take one."
But when she ate the smoke, all she felt was gone.
To learn more about flash fiction, try out our Flash Fiction 101 article on JUVEN Press. Happy writing!
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.
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