The thoughts we can understand are very little thoughts... – Jerome K. Jerome
I don't write flash fiction. Okay, I've written two stories that you could call flash fiction and that's it. I even had one of them published so there. But their brevity was more a matter of circumstance than intent. I never sat down to consciously write a piece of flash fiction. I just said what I had to say and got off the page.
If I were to sit down and make up my rules of writing – which I have no intention of doing – one of them would be that: Say what you have to say and get off the page. It surprises me that I haven't been drawn to shorter prose forms because I do write short poems. I think part of it has been that I have never thought about flash fiction as a form in itself. I didn't imagine there were any different rules to writing a flash fiction – Is that correct English? – than there were to writing any story.
I suppose a flash fiction is okay. You have a novel, a novella, a novelette, a short story … and, a flash fiction. Doesn't sound quite right though, does it? Apparently the French call them nouvelles – I like the sound of that – la nouvelle. Other names for this type of writing are: short-short stories, sudden, postcard, minute, furious, fast, quick, skinny, and micro fiction and I have no doubt that there are others but that will do for right now.
There are of course types of flash fiction that have acquired unique names. Wikipedia mentions three:
One type of flash fiction is the short story with an exact word count. Examples include 55 Fiction, the Drabble and the 69er. Nanofictions are complete stories, with at least one character and a discernible plot, exactly 55 words long. A Drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, excluding titles, and a 69er is a story of exactly 69 words, again excluding the title.
Now, I have a problem with these. It's the same problem I have with the clerihew, the grossblank, the lento, the pantoum, the etheree and all other such contrived poetic forms. As an exercise it's interesting to challenge oneself but that's about it. Anyway, I think that's a subject for another time.
The bottom line, as regards flash fiction or the 'short-short story' as Collier’s magazine in the 1930’s described it, is an arbitrary editorial decision. Collier’s started a new feature and asked for stories that would fit on one page of their magazine (no actual word count was specified but it was easy enough for writers to work out a rough limit); the maximum for most magazine is 1000 words; the editors of the original Flash Fiction anthology decided that they would include only stories that would fit on a two-page spread of the typical literary magazine, or 750 words; MicroHorror draws the line at 666; Right Hand Pointing won’t consider work over 500 words; Jerome Stern who edited MicroFiction, drew the line at 300 words or less; The Abilene Writers Guild Annual Contest sets the limit at 250; Dogzplot define 'flash fiction' as anything up to 200 words … and then there are the Drabble, the 69er and the Nanofiction magazines and, finally, the e-zine OneSentence publishes stories that are exactly that, one sentence long. Here's an example:
My dog is nineteen years old and I just taught him a new trick.
Okay, so we have a sort of length. So the next question is: How does a piece of flash fiction differ – if indeed it does – from a regular short story? The basic elements of most stories are a protagonist, some kind of conflict, obstacle or complication to overcome and a resolution to that encounter: i.e. the chicken was knocked down whilst crossing the road. That's nine words and it covers all the bases but I wouldn't call it a story and yet more can be said with less as Hemingway aptly demonstrated:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
So where's the protagonist, eh? He or she isn't there in fact the only noun in the piece is 'baby shoes'. The fact is the protagonists are all implied. If there are 'baby shoes' then logic dictates that there once may have been a baby. That the shoes are for sale suggests an owner or owners who have the right to sell the shoes. That there might be a relationship between the child and the owners of the shoes is not an unreasonable one to make.
In his short essay, Awww!, Randall Brown says: "Great flash pieces have that “centerlight pop”; without it, the flash does not burn brightly enough to justify its brevity, its suddenness." 'Aw' might be the effect – and in some cases it will be – but in other cases I suspect it might be an 'ah', 'oh', 'argh' or even an 'err?' – in other words a climax, a … punch line.
In an article on George S. Kaufman, Woody Allen provides the following anecdote:
[Moss] Hart has written about Kaufman's ability to edit and pare to the bone, to throw out jokes should they dare to impede the plot -- to kill his children. Kaufman felt that while a drama could survive with a bit of slack, a comedy had to be airtight. The story is told of a playwright suffering with his opus in Philadelphia who asked Kaufman how he could improve it. Without seeing the failing play, Kaufman replied, ''Make it shorter.'' – New York Times
Flash fiction is about as short as it gets.
Q: So how does a piece of flash fiction differ from a joke?
A: I'm not so sure that it necessarily does.
For three years, the young attorney had been taking his brief vacations at this country inn. The last time he'd finally managed an affair with the innkeeper's daughter. Looking forward to an exciting few days, he dragged his suitcase up the stairs of the inn, then stopped short. There sat his lover with an infant on her lap!
"Helen, why didn't you write when you learned you were pregnant?" he cried. "I would have rushed up here, we could have gotten married, and the baby would have my name!"
"Well," she said, "when my folks found out about my condition, we sat up all night talkin' and talkin' and decided it would be better to have a bastard in the family than a lawyer."
What makes this not flash fiction? Is it intent? Jokes are common. Stories like to think they're not. There is a trick to writing good comedy and that's not to treat the audience like a fool; the comedian can be the fool, his subject can play the fool but the audience has to be placed above all of that looking down. In an interview, the writer Barry Yourgrau – who has achieved some level of fame as a flash fiction author – said this:
I find very short items, when good, expand in the reader's imagination. I sometimes, say, like to break off a story right before it's resolved - at a surging cliff-hanger. Let the reader finish things up. – The Millions
Now, the joke above is not a very good joke but it does respect its audience. It doesn't explain itself and relies upon a certain degree of worldly experience from them. Flash fiction is the same. It doesn't have the time to explain things. The thing is, when I look at the story about the dog I'm reminded of the humour of Steven Wright who is famous for his one-liners like:
The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.
There is a protagonist, an obstacle, a resolution, even a moral but is it flash fiction?
What makes a good joke? That is a good question. Simply put, although I don't think there's anything simple about it, the best jokes are often those that put ideas together in original or unexpected ways. It's also about the relationship between the setup and the punch line. Often this involves misdirection and I think that is something that the best stories do too:
THE SCARLATTI TILT
"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.
Richard Brautigan – from Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970
The setup and the punch line is just one way of looking at the structure of a story. Most traditional stories have a plot that leads to its climax or dénouement and the best of these are where they're unexpected.
This was something that the long-running television show The Twilight Zone did very well. The stories would typically end with an ironic twist that would often see the guilty punished but sometimes the innocent too, if I can summarise 'Time Enough at Last':
Henry Bemis is a man who loves books and yet is surrounded by those who would prevent him from reading them; his wife even defaces one of his books at one point as a joke. A bank worker by pure fluke Bemis survives the end of the world in the safety of the bank's vault and finds himself alone with enough food to last him a lifetime but no one for company. Just when he thinks he can tolerate the loneliness no longer he stumbles across the ruins of the public library with all of its books still intact and readable. Every book he could ever hope for is his for the taking, and he finally has all the time in the world to read – and no one to stop him.
Organising the books he plans to read by month, Bemis proclaims he has enough to last several years and time enough at last to read them. Just as he reaches to pick up his first book, he trips and his glasses fall off and shatter. In tears, he picks up the remains of his glasses and sobs: "That's–that's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed! It's not fair! "
Now, as was often the case, this was actually an adaptation of a short story. I doubt it was a piece of flash fiction and there's a reason for that. In this story we need time to get to know Bemis and to empathise with him. It's only once we have something invested in him that his loss becomes ours. It is also the kind of cliff-hanger that I believe Yourgrau was on about because we don't know what happens to Bemis. He might go out and find an opticians and see what lenses they have lying around and be back with his books the next day or his might just pull his gun out of his pocket and blow his head off there and then.
If you think about it, the best stories – long, short or middling – always have scope for more. Life is full of ups and downs. George kills Lenny and a few pages later the book is done but what happens to George afterwards. In truth he probably ekes out an existence as best he can and dies quietly sooner than he might have liked but not soon enough for him to get the bitter taste of murdering Lenny out of his mouth. But that's another story and one day someone may well have a crack at writing it.
Compression is not everything. Look at the synopsis I provided above of 'Time Enough At Last' – with, I hasten to add, the assistance of Wikipedia – it's not very good. You get the idea but it's lacking, isn't it? I did toy with the idea of trying to rework it as an exercise but I have enough on my plate at the moment.
It's often said that in poetry you need to make every word work overtime and the same can be said for flash fiction. Take the example by Hemingway – even his spaces are crammed with meaning. It's not poetry. It doesn't pretend to be poetry but it does what the best poetry does and, in most cases, without resorting to poetic language and being accused of being prose poetry.
The first time I heard the expression 'prose poem' was in 1976 when I bought a collection of short stories by Solzhenitsyn. It included at the end a number of, what it called 'prose poems' and here is my favourite:
THE BONFIRE AND THE ANTS
translated by Michael Glenny
I threw a rotten log onto the fire without noticing that it was alive with ants.
The log began to crackle, the ants came tumbling out and scurried around in desperation. They ran along the top and writhed as they were scorched by the flames. I gripped the log and rolled it to one side. Many of the ants then managed to escape onto the sand or the pine needles.
But, strangely enough, they did not run away from the fire.
They had no sooner overcome their terror than they turned, circled, and some kind of force drew them back to their forsaken homeland. There were many who climbed back onto the burning log, ran about on it, and perished there.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn – from Matryona's House and other stories
I read it over many times to try and work out in my head why it wasn't simple a very short story especially since it had the feel of a fable about; it was just lacking the moral at the end. I kinda thought it was a bit like Animal Farm, saying something political that I wasn't getting.
Since then I have read flash pieces that come perilously close to being poems which leads me to suspect that the definition has moved on from 1971 when these stories first appeared in English.
The question that's begging to be asked is: Why the explosion of these now? It's not a hard question to answer but I like how Pamelyn Casto put it:
Some claim that the proliferation of the short-short story is due to modern readers' attenuated attention spans, our shortened sound-byte, text-byte mentality. Others think it is because of the "asthmatic" conditions under which we live--our fiction is reflecting the out-of-breathness of modern life. Some suggest that it is due to increased printing costs and the way in which editors can include more variety and less length in their publications. And some think it is because so many have lost faith in the traditional way of telling stories at great length. Such readers and writers realize that "truth" comes only infrequently and only in flashes. - Flashes On The Meridian: Dazzled by Flash Fiction
What she didn't mention is that flash fiction fits new media. It's why they're so popular in China where they read whole novels on their phones these days. I like the convenience of them myself. When one appears in my FeedReader I know it's not demanding that I make a cup of coffee and settle down in a comfy chair for an hour. I can stop what I'm doing and take a story-break of a couple of minutes.
This is not meant to trivialise the format either, far from it. Like all forms of writing it has its good and its bad exponents. I don't believe that flash fiction is a joke – in the bad sense of the word – but I do believe in its most straightforward expressions it owes a debt to the humourists of the past.
Humour has moved on and so has the art of story-telling. Let me leave you with a few from the books on my shelves to have a think about.
AN ILLEGAL TRANSACTION
She bought the stuff and gave him an eight dollar bill. He didn't have change. All he had was a three.
Sherril Jaffe – from Scars Make Your Body More Interesting & Other Stories
She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, "French film, French film."
Amy Hempel – from Tumble Home: a novella and short stories
For years after our mother's death, the post office continued to deliver letters that were addressed to her. The post office had taken no notice of her death.
Thomas Bernhard – from The Voice Imitator