Fiction That Strikes Like Lightning
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Berit Ellingsen provides an overview of flash and shares selections from Lightspeed Magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Flash Fiction! special issue, which she guest edited. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Berit Ellingsen
Some of the first stories I got published were flash fiction, such as “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye” in SmokeLong. As a new writer, I was immediately attracted to the flash fiction form, because I didn’t know it was possible to tell entire stories in just a thousand words or less. Thus, flash fiction was new and so fun to read and write, with a great variety of voices and styles and writers getting published online.
But what characterizes flash fiction? Most literary publications define flash fiction as being prose that is less than 1,000 words long. Some publications limit the length to 750 words, others at 1,500 words, and some at 300 words. There was even a site, Safety Pin Review, edited by Simon Jacobs, that published stories in 30 words or less and which were worn by people.
With online literary journals flash fiction has become widespread the last five years, but writers have been writing flash fiction for much longer than that. Gaius Petronius (cirka 27-66 AD), the author of Satyricon, who lived in ancient Rome under Nero’s reign, wrote at least one flash story, “The Young Widow” (reprinted in the anthology Flash Fiction International), a story about a young widow who gets locked inside the tomb of her dead husband together with her new love. In 1933, W. Somerset Maugham wrote “An Appointment In Samarra,” a retelling of an ancient tale about death and trying to escape the inevitable, a riveting story told in less than two hundred words.
Like its name indicates, the best flash fiction is brief and jolting, and leave a lasting impression, like the scorch path of a lightning bolt. Yet, despite their brevity, flash fiction stories have the power to create whole worlds, describe full and complex characters, and an unforgettable plot, all in just a few hundred words. Such as Kathy Fish’s “Spaceman,” about a crashing astronaut who still has almost infinite possibilities, and Allie Werner’s “Mars,” which speaks volumes of how human beings interact and long for one another. Both these stories take a single concept or emotion and bring it out into a full and deeply moving story.
This is of course not always easy to do. It requires the writer to focus on the essentials of the story, its core, or centers of gravity as I have heard other writers call it, and maybe even pare that down a little, depending on what word count needs to be reached. The writer must also be as accurate and as right on point as possible, with both plot, characterizations, descriptions, and voice, so as not to waste space and dilute the essence of the story.
Yet, despite its short length, a flash story is not simply an outtake from or part of a longer story. Neither is it a short version of a longer story. A flash story is a tiny story all of its own, with a clear start and middle and beginning that is independent of any larger context.
Neither does the small word count and the restricted space mean that you can’t do a multipoint plot structure with rising and falling tension, or describe the characters and surroundings and landscapes in exquisite detail. In fact, flash writers should do this, but only insofar as it adds something and is central to the story. Such as in Faith Gardner’s “Behind The Silver Window” and “Out in the Desert” by Seth Seppala, where the story really is in the details.
Perhaps because there is so little room, the narrative voice in flash fiction is often very strong and highly characteristic, such as in Kevin Jared Hossein’s story “Hiranyagarbha,” about an environmental catastrophe that slowly starts to eat the Earth and all living beings. Or Teresa Naval’s “An Offertory To Our Drowned Gods,” which also tells of future disaster, but in a completely different form than Hossein’s story.
Often, the events in flash fiction are sudden, unpredictable, catastrophic, but not always. Sometimes they can be quiet and soft and seeming to amble on their path, but this is just deceptive. Like the slow, yet extremely forceful winds on Venus, these stories gather momentum slowly to completely bowl the reader over at the end. Like Ethel Rohan’s powerfully moving “I Love You.”
With the smaller word count of flash fiction, it might sound like the form has a lot of limitations, and maybe it has from a certain point of view. But some of the trick is to utilize the lack of space instead of being limited by it. All the best and most memorable flash fiction does this successfully.
Thus, the form itself encourages experimentation and trying out new and unusual structures and approaches. Some flash fiction work is more on the side of prose poetry, such as Kristine Ong Muslim’s linked vignettes “Age Of Blight,” or poetry, or is a hybrid between the two. Other experimentations number or alphabetize sections, or the stories are written as one entire sentence or without punctuation, or backwards or in an otherwise unusual sequence.
The short-short form lends itself well to both fiction and creative non-fiction (for the latter, see Brevity Magazine). This too, encourages experimentation and moving outside of one’s usual genres or themes. With less time and energy required to craft a whole story, flash stories can be the first forays into new thematic territory or to try on new and different modes of storytelling.
It is also possible to write a whole novella or even a novel as flash fiction, with each chapter having the form of a flash story, or the novel consisting of several linked flash stories. Such as in Matthew Salesses’ novel I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying. And some flash stories, once started, may turn out to be larger stories, even whole novels.
The stories I have mentioned here are only a few that display the great range and variety of flash fiction. SmokeLong is one of the best places to get a sense of contemporary flash fiction. So is Wigleaf’s yearly selection of the best flash fiction across the web.
More great tips on writing that are applicable to flash fiction (but not only to flash fiction) are found in Matthew Salesses’ “A Month Of Revision” in Necessary Fiction.
Berit Ellingsen is the author of two novels, Not Dark Yet (Two Dollar Radio), and Une ville vide (PublieMonde), as well as a collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin (Queen’s Ferry Press). Her work has been published in W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Litro, and other places, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. Berit travels between Norway and Svalbard in the Arctic, and is a member of the Norwegian Authors’ Union. Learn more at http://beritellingsen.com.