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Flash Fiction – The Perfect Form for the Modern Age

Debbie Young

Author Debbie Young explains flash fiction, gives her advice on writing good flash and explores why flash fiction is perfectly suited for us, in our rush to quickly consume content.

Two years ago, if you’d have asked me what Flash Fiction was, I’d have hesitated, but since discovering flash via a reference on Facebook to National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD), this ultra-short prose form has become a pleasurable addiction both to read and to write. With NFFD 2014 just around the corner (Saturday 21st June), this is the perfect time to begin your own flash fiction journey. This article will explain more about this art form, why it’s gaining ground with 21st century readers and writers, and how you can take part in NFFD 2014.

What is Flash Fiction Anyway?

Flash fiction is the art of writing a very short story. It sometimes goes under other names, such as sudden fiction or micro-fiction, but essentially it’s any story that is very short. How short is short? To put it in  perspective, the standard short story is around 3,000 words. NFFD’s annual anthology and online journal Flash Flood calls for stories of no more than 500 words, but other word-counts are also popular. I even know one writer who can get away with nothing but a title: The Memoirs of An Uninteresting Man  - followed by a blank page – by Bart Van Goethem). Ernest Hemingway’s much-quoted classic is a six-word one-liner:

Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn. 

Used wisely, such a sparse word count immediately conjures up a wealth of plot, detail and back story in the reader’s imagination, but for me flash works best when the story is spelled out a little more fully and includes a complete story arc, just as in a conventional short story – beginning, middle, end, with a problem and a solution.

How to Write Good Flash

Good flash fiction offers a short, sharp piece of prose in which every word works hard to add meaning. Superfluous words are ruthlessly excised, leaving only the essentials to convey mood and message. Think back to those précis lessons you had in school English classes. Just like those lessons, writing flash is a great antidote for the tendency to waffle.

It cuts to the chase with a couple of pages or less, and to do this you must choose your starting point wisely. Your story may open closer to the denouement than in a longer work, and your ending may be more abrupt, so as not to lose punch, but the tale should still form a satisfying whole for the reader. 

Such incisive editing creates a dense prose, often offering the intensity of poetry but in a format more accessible than verse to the average modern reader.

Why Flash Suits The Modern Age

The short attention span of 21st century man is one reason why flash fiction is starting to gain popularity. But to suggest it dumbs down fiction to suit a less intelligent or engaged reader would be to do flash fiction a vast disservice. There are other more important and practical reasons for the rise of flash. 

  • It sits comfortably on the screen of modern alternatives to print books: tablets, smartphones, netbooks, laptops and other electronic devices. 
  • A story will often fit on a single screen, which is visually pleasing instant experience of fiction that can be enjoyed in odd moments without the need to have a print book to hand. 
  • It also offers the perfect retort to anyone who tells you they have no time to read.

For the writer, flash offers these advantages: 

  • penning a flash story provides instant fulfilment and fun
  • success with short pieces adds motivation to plough on with longer projects such as novels 
  • flash is a great discipline, nurturing writing skills that sit well with other short form pieces such as blog posts and journalism
  • a flash repertoire provides quick and easy samples of your writing to encourage readers to reach for your longer published works

National Flash Fiction Day

If you’re anything like me, the moment you read your first good flash story, you’ll be hooked and hungry for more. I first discovered the modern flash fiction movement two years ago, on the first ever National Flash Fiction Day which was founded by the prolific Calum Kerr, author of many flash collections and the helpful how-to-write-flash-fiction book, The World in a Flash. 

Appropriately, on the longest day/shortest night of the year (vice versa if you’re in the southern hemisphere), this event has become an annual celebration of flash, directed by Calum. An anthology of flash fiction is published, sourced from a competition to attract the best in modern flash fiction writing. There’s also a day-long Flash Flood event, giving many more writers, including beginners, the opportunity to have their work published online in a 24-hour outpouring of flash, a new story posted every few minutes on Facebook. 

My Flash Fiction

One of my flash stories, Clean Linen, was featured in last year’s Flash Flood, and I’m pleased to say that another will be included in this year’s anthology, Eating My Words. I’m now penning my entries for Flash Flood (the deadline is Thursday 19th June – more details here).

I’ll also be publishing my first collection of flash fiction stories: Quick Change: Tiny Tales of Transformation. If you’d like me to email you with more details as soon as this ebook goes live, you can add your name to my launch mailing list here. (The print book will follow later in the summer). 

Just don’t tell me you’ve got no time to read them! 

Debbie Young is an English author, blogger and journalist. She writes non-fiction and short fiction, and is also commissioning editor of  the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Self-Publishing Advice blog. Her first collection of flash fiction, Quick Change: Tiny Tales of Transformation, will be published on 21st June 2014 as part of the National Flash Fiction Day celebrations. Find out more about all of Debbie's work on her author website.