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Not a Flash in the Pan

This post was originally written by Raegan Teller for publication on the Columbia II chapter of the SC Writers Association’s website:

The first time I read flash fiction, I immediately thought of my much-older brother, who was a professional photographer. When I was a young child, I watched him take shots with a large camera that used a flash bulb. It would light up the room and capture a brief, but meaningful, moment in time. That’s how I view flash fiction.

In recent years, short-short stories have been called micro fiction, sudden fiction, and other names. James Thomas titled his 1992 anthology, Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, because his editor said his stories were flash fiction that would fit on two facing pages of a literary magazine. Thomas is thus credited with the term that later became accepted usage. Of course, the form itself existed long before then. Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” was written in the 1920s on a dare to pen a story using as few words as possible. He insisted that using the minimum number of words was the way to achieve maximum effect.

Today’s flash fiction is typically 1000 words or less, although some say 1500 or even 2000 words is the cap. Flash fiction is having a moment now, so mediocre flash fiction abounds. Excellent flash fiction is scarcer because it’s difficult to write. As in poetry, every word must pull its load. Edgar Allan Poe said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.” This is particularly true of flash fiction. An English professor once told me that the most important decision you’ll make writing short stories is where to begin. The literature technique “in medias res,” meaning to start in the middle of the action, is particularly relevant to flash fiction. You must also become comfortable with leaving things out. What you don’t say can be more powerful than what you do say. This approach engages readers to use their own imagination to fill in the gaps and is part of the appeal of flash fiction.

The discipline and skill required to write flash fiction is great training for new and experienced writers. George R. R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire series, recommends all writers begin with short fiction rather than jumping into a novel-length project.

Somehow, I missed Martin’s advice and began my fiction career writing mystery novels, although I did write a decent number of short stories in college. However, in the past few years, as a challenge to myself, I’ve been writing short stories and flash fiction to hone my skills. I can attest to the fact that writing in this brief format is a great way to learn or improve your craft.

Another plus for flash fiction is that it sells, although you probably won’t get rich. Keep in mind that your primary goal should be to build your writer’s brand and to showcase your skills with this unique form of storytelling that’s here to stay—not a flash in the pan.

Published inFiction & StorytellingWriting Craft & Process

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