Brevity is the soul of wit. Flash fiction is a fictional work of extreme brevity.
Defining Flash Fiction
Flash fiction has a sort-of amorphous definition, as different word counts delineate the many types of flash fiction. As a general rule, a piece of flash fiction is less than 1,000 words (that’s two single-spaced pages). Word count funnels down from there. “Sudden fiction” can be as long as 750 words, “drabble” is 100 words or less, and “dribble” takes it down to 50. There are ones as short as Hemingway’s six-word-story,
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
The crux of flash fiction is this: communicate the maximum amount of information with minimal verbiage and maintain character and/or plot development.
Or: Glean more meaning out of fewer words.
Actually: MORE MEANING. FEWER WORDS.
Okay, I think you get it.
What makes good flash fiction?
Flash fiction works because it leans on a very specific type of writing, called Iceberg Writing. Coined by Hemingway himself, iceberg theory (also known as the theory of omission), states that the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface, but should shine through implicitly. Egro, the term “iceberg.” 90 percent of what’s really there should be hidden under the surface.
Iceberg writing is extremely popular in the Suburban Gothic genre. Little Things, by Raymond Carver, is a perfect example of this. I strongly recommend you stop here and go read it. *I’m going to spoil it in the next paragraph.*
I read this freshman year of college and literally wrote in my textbook, “DID THEY RIP THE BABY?!?” Because that’s exactly what you’re supposed to think, but Carver never says it. That’s the thing about Iceberg writing – the human mind will fill in the missing pieces. It’s not any more meaningful for the author to explain it than it is for the reader to figure it out on their own.
The human brain is an amazing thing that can fill in memories, visual gaps, and even stories when certain parts are missing. But it only ever fills in the gaps with ideas that make sense within the context. An author’s job is to lay down solid context, a clear cookie-crumb trail, to lead the reader to the right idea. In flash fiction, you just get less crumbs.
The internet has become an incubator for flash fiction, with sites like 3:AM Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, Brevity, and SmokeLong Quarterly (who promises their pieces are just that – about a smoke long). Flash fiction has even developed a category called “twitterature,” with a 280 character limit.
But this flash fiction renaissance has some deep historical roots. Think back to stories as old as Aesop’s Fables, or fast forward to Mark Twain, or Walt Whitman. Or the age-old haiku. That’s right, poetry can be flash fiction too.
So now you know. Go make some flash fiction.