Flash Fiction: What is it, anyway?

A cage went in search of a bird…. Franz Kafka

I like it except for the whole thing…Henry James

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn …Ernest Hemingway.

The History of Flash Fiction and Its Predecessor: The Prose Poem.

With the abundance of online publications, flash fiction is making a dazzling re-entry into the literary scene. Because it’s short, flash is the essence of the “less is more” school of writing. Whether or not you choose to concentrate on flash fiction, learning to write flash will train your ear and allow you to make crisp transitions so the reader can take a leap of the imagination with you. Economy and compression are the essence of good flash. Until recently flash fiction only appeared in literary journals, escaping critics and enjoying marginalized obscurity. Perhaps for this reason many writers have felt that flash fiction was a backwater and a refuge from conventional narrative. It can bivouac vacant buildings, welcome unknown countries, talk to shadows—and express radical beliefs. Flash fiction is free and exalts in its protean nature.

Flash fiction combines the poet’s monologue with the fiction writer’s penchant for  working with characters. In a sense it’s an urgent letter, telegraphing secrets you might tell to strangers on a train. These once told, quickly-heard tales must capture a reader’s trust, imagination and attention.

It’s  helpful to remember that flash fiction morphed from the prose poem. And if you’re serious about writing flash, it’s helpful to study and write some prose poems.

The prose poem looks like prose, but has elliptical leaps in language characteristic of poetry. It also has startling twists of imagery and a spirit of radical imagination. The prose-poem is image driven and relies on transformation of the image.

Nobody knows who wrote the first prose poem.  Sei Shonogan, the author of The Pillow Book in the 990s and early 1000s in the Japanese court, certainly wrote prose poems–although she didn’t call them that. Bertrand and Mallarme, among others in France, began to use the prose poem to rebel against the strict Alexandrine form of poetry. It was used in Syria, too, in the 19th century.

Russell Edson and W. S. Merwin, both prose poem masters, are partly responsible for the blossoming of the prose poem in the late sixties, seventies and eighties. Edson in particular influenced Lydia Davis and several other writers.

The evolution of flash fiction from the prose poem.

As the prose poem began to  deal with characters  it morphed into flash fiction, which is character-driven, rather than the prose poem which is image driven.  In other words, the transformation (or interesting lack of transformation) occurs with the characters.

The distinction still remains, but sometimes blurs.  Some flash is called “micro-fiction” or “nano-fiction” and even “smoke-long fiction”which means that it’s long enough to finish a cigarette.   Flash is rarely more than 500 to 750 words and  often less.  Microfiction is often 300 words or less.

Some examples of prose poems

(Reprinted with permission from Finding Your Writers Voice, St. Martin’s Press, Frank/Wall)

Ana Hatherly  is a Portuguese prose poem writer. This is  from her series  Tisanas–an anagram of her name

Once upon a time there was a land where there weren’t any clouds.To make rain, it was necessary to wash the horizon with feathers. 

You can see the transformation of the image: There aren’t any clouds. There’s a hidden premise that there has to be rain.  The conclusion is that one must wash the sky with feathers.

Incidents—a prose poem from Danhil Kharms, is a Russian novel in a paragraph.

Once Orlov ate too many ground peas and died. Krylov found out about it and died too. Spirindov up and died all by himself. Spririndov’s wife fell off the cupboard and also died. Spirindov’s children drowned in the pond. Grandma Spirindov took to drink and hit the road. Mikhailov stopped combing his hair and caught a skin disease. Kruglove drew a picture of a lady with a whip in her hand and lost his mind. Perekhrestove was sent four hundred rubles and put on such airs that they fired him at his office. Good people but they don’t know how to take themselves in hand.

Like many prose poems of that era, this Russian novel in a few sentences is also a poem of political protest.  Kharms was eventually murdered. No one character transforms here. The image is one of utter chaos and the transformation occurs with an ironic comment. The prose poem is a vehicle for presenting tilted environments without the causal implications of science fiction or fantasy.  It is a natural vehicle for unself-conscious surrealism.

The prose poems I write usually don’t have a political slant, but here’s one:

It’s a only a memory, the gold and green, the yellow daisies, the emerald lawns. Since X became president we mostly live in our garages. There’s a chance to breathe there and sort through old postcards. On the day before I decided to burn everything my ex-husband knocked and carried me to the watering hole. He snorted and whinnied like a horse and when we got to the watering hole he put me on the ground. All animals lay down their arms before water, he said. For water, they forget their differences.

Here the transformation is the transformation of a landscape:  From cultivated images, to isolated, arid garages, to a collective watering hole. Like many prose poems, this transformation of an image was unconscious.  (I realized later that the fact that my ex-husband brought me there italicized the laying down of arms and the forgetting of differences.)

What’s in a Name?

“Flash fiction” got its name from James Thomas, an editor of a several seminal anthologies of flash. The name came to him one night in a New England farm house and has never left the literary scene.  This obviously happened after the prose poem began to slide into work with characters.    But by giving “Flash Fiction” a name, James Thomas defined a form . The definition of a new form allowed writers to say “This is something with parameters I recognize!” . The definition–and Thomas’s  eclectic collections (he also collaborated with Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka)—encouraged writers to work with the form and push it to explosive possibilities.  Recently Thomas has created a new category called “MIcrofiction.”  It’s three hundred words or less and is  a form unto itself.

Key Attributes of Flash

Flash originally was defined as around 500 words or less—occasionally expanded to a little over 500 and sometimes 750. Over time, it has expanded to 1,000 words. However if you’re going to learn to write flash, you should stick to between 250 and 400 words, keeping it as short as possible. This is because flash isn’t defined by length alone. It’s defined by elliptical leaps in language, startling subtext, and a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It involves key skills that are easier to learn  if your work is short.

As part of its debut, the online world has given birth to journals that publish flash-fiction almost exclusively. TwitterFiction, with a restriction of 140-character segments, is defining even shorter forms.   Books have also begun to utilize flash-like sections. And readers and writers alike are asking questions, signaling that flash has entered the conversation.

Perhaps the most common questions are: What is flash fiction, anyway? Isn’t it much easier to write than a novel? What are the key elements of flash?

What is flash fiction, anyway?

The short answer is that flash fiction is short.

The longer answer is that although flash is its own form, it overlaps both poetry and fiction and always convoys a sense of compression. Like poetry, flash is  characterized by a distinctive voice, with more reliance on subtext than plot and elliptical leaps of language. Like fiction, flash usually deals with at least one character and involves that character’s transformation—or interesting lack of it. The transformation can be slight, but is always surprising. Sometime flash omits characters in lieu of a fable, a parable, or a dystopian universe. Unlike the traditional novel or short story, flash has no pre-conceived templates. It can surrender to the imagination without announcing a genre.

When writing flash it’s helpful to understand how much flash has taken its inspiration from the short, language-driven form of the prose poem–its indisputable predecessor—and often a vehicle for political protest. (As was the case with Danhil Kharms.)

What are the Key Elements of Flash?

Compression: Making every word count. Leaving out everything that’s unnecessary–although what is necessary can involve lush lyric imagery.

Working skillfully with the three unities (time, place and action) and and using them sparingly or (to put it differently):

Using minimal transitions. Allowing the reader to take leaps of imagination with you–and not describing how something got from here to there or how it’s later the same day or using a flashback describe a character.

Voice—learning to use who you are, how you express that artistically and (in a final draft) understanding that you’re communicating with a stranger (i.e. the reader)*

Skillful use of imagery and lyricism—knowing when it works and when it’s excessive

Understanding both transformation of an image and transformation of a character.

Understanding the relation between individual lines of the story and the narrative arc. (I.e. The narrative arc is always greater than the sum of its parts.)

Understanding the difference between plot and narrative arc. (If plot were the same as narrative arc, the synopsis of Hamlet would be as good as the play.)

*Voice isn’t style. Rather, voice is the fire that gives rise to style.  A writer with a good ear can imitate another writer’s style, but can’t find the whole story.  Imitating style is like using a rope to go a certain distance out to sea.  But the rope is too taut for you to dive  below the surface.  The writer you’re imitating and make the dive and find a story. You can learn from imitating style. But the voice of the story is larger than the individual lines–and you’re stuck with finding your own story.  Flash will help you find the narrative arc, as well as not get tangled in in what’s not relevant.  This is partly because flash is so short you can see the whole story and the individual lines at the same time.

Is Flash Fiction Easier than Longer Fiction?

Many writers revise flash quickly or don’t need to revise at all. But all of these writers have developed their skills and honed their voice. Other writers say that flash requires revision. A piece that has been anthologized and won a Literary Death Match took me five years, pulling me by the sleeve when I worked on something longer. Flash looks easy because there are so few sentences. But sentences—no matter how clever or artful–won’t coalesce into a story. Understanding flash involves a deep understanding of a narrative arc–that elusive beast, whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Although flash fiction can take time to write, after it’s finished, the reader has the sense of a story told in a single breath, a swift and urgent letter.  Writers of flash often express surprise that something so small has its own mysterious wholeness. Flash is brief, complete, and teems with protean forms.   I hope it remains renegade and continues to evolve and astound.

Because they’re longer, permissions to reprint are harder. For the time being, here’s one of my own—300 words.

The New Thieves

One night my lover said: You must be learn to be like the new thieves—they never steal, they add. They enter rooms without force and leave hairpins, envelopes, roses. Later they leave larger things like pianos: No one ever notices. You must be like that woman in the bar who dropped her glove so softly I put it on. Or that man who offered his wife so carefully, I thought we’d been married for seventeen years. You must fill me with riches, so quietly I’ll never notice.

            The next day I brought home a woman in camouflage. She looked just like me and talked just like me, and that night while I pretended to sleep she made love to my lover. I thought I’d accomplished my mission, but as soon as she left, he said: I knew she wasn’t you. I knew by the way she kissed.

           I tried new things but nothing eluded him: Shoes like his old ones, scuffed in the same places; keepsakes from his mother; books he’d already read. He recognized everything and threw it away.

            One rainy afternoon when I couldn’t think of anything else to give him, I went to an elegant bar, the kind with leather chairs and soft lights. I ordered chilled white wine, and suddenly, without guile, the bartender smiled at me. That night while my lover slept next to us, we made love, and the next morning he hung up his clothes in my lover’s closet. Soon he moved in, walking like a cat, filling the house with books. My lover never noticed, and now at night he lies next to us, thinking that he’s the bartender. He breathes his air, dreams his dreams, and in the morning when we all wake up, he tells me that he’s happy.

Whether or not you write flash fiction, learning the skills involved in flash improves skill in  longer pieces. Notice how many novels have passages that don’t drive the narrative arc and wake readers from the fictional dream with prosaic and predictable details. These passages usually involve an unnecessary break in unity of time, place, or action: A  reductionistic flashback explaining how someone’s mother used to lock the refrigerator and he has turned into a compulsive eater. Long descriptions of driving an old Prius to the other side of town. Explaining that someone had tea, vacuumed and took a nap before it was later the same day. Flash trains you to trust your voice, veer from conventional templates and get to the chase.   Its emphasis on voice allows writers to access a vibrational tone, a music, that conveys though the use of voice as an instrument–one that is visceral and  kinesthetic.. Fiction writers do a great deal of cerebral and analytic thinking–far more than people realize.  But flash reminds us again and again, that fiction is not the same as linear thinking.  And that voice is a kind of music.

 Here’s a Short Reading List–with apologies to flash writers I’ve omitted.

Flash Fiction edited by James Thomas  and numerous other anthologies by  James Thomas that you can find on Amazon or in your local bookstore. (Among them: Flash Fiction International and Flash Fiction Forward..)  Once more, James Thomas deserves special mention:  By giving “flash fiction” a name, he brought the form into literary consciousness.

Break it Down Lydia Davis

Parables and Paradoxes Franz Kafka

Wouldn’t You Like to Know? Pam Painter

Damn Sure Right by Meg Pokrass

Fissures: 100-word stories,  Grant Faulkner

We the Animals Justin Torres

Complete Works and Other Stories Augusto Monterroso

Selections from Finding Your Writer’s Voice, Frank, St. Martins Press

The House on Mango Street–Sandra Cisneros

The Meat and Spirit Plan: Selah Saterstrom

Palm of the Hand Stories Yasunari Kawabata

The Pillow Book Sei Shonogan

Comics by Lynda Barry. Although they combine art, they are wonderful examples of vernacular, short fiction, done with extraordinary economy.

American Born Chinese Gene Yang  (the first graphic novel to be nominated for an American Book Award. (Full disclosure: Gene was my student in an Honors English undergraduate class at UC Berkeley.  He just won a MacArthur, said almost not a word in class, and never went to an MFA program.)

Enchantment by Thaisa Frank  (selections–interspersed with short fiction)

Prose Poems by Frances Lefkowitz http://www.franceslefkowitz.net/fiction-essays

Platero and I Juan Ramon Jimenez

Silk Allesandro Baricco

Faces and Masks from Memory of Fire Trilogy (Galleano—particularly helpful for non-fictional flash)

The Sisters” from The Dubliners by James Joyce; although this isn’t flash fiction, it will give you a sense of how voice and subtext create the shape and unity of the story and are far more important than plot.

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