Diary of a Slush Reader: Flash Fiction

One thing that I’ve learned about through reading slush for New South is the art of flash fiction (micro fiction, short-short fiction, etc.). I didn’t have much experience with flash when I came to New South, but because we publish it regularly on our website, it wasn’t long before I’d read hundreds of flash pieces, ranging widely in their level of success. From that reading, I’ve learned a few things about what tends to work in flash fiction and what doesn’t.

Definitions of what constitutes flash fiction vary, but less than three pages is standard (here at New South, we have a 500 word limit for micro prose submissions). This very short length changes the kinds of things that can be done in a piece, and tends to turn flash into one of two different animals:

Condensed fiction, which only includes the most essential parts of the story, each word of each sentence giving a specific piece of necessary information in order to build a story that feels as complex and complete as a full-length story.

Fragmentary fiction, which focuses on one fragment of a story. That fragment can be a pivotal moment when some crucial revelation occurs. It can be one character’s distinct, meaningful experience. Or it can consider a specific action in a new, interesting way.

The language in flash has to be perfect. Where we can overcome an oddly-phrased sentence or an improperly used word in full-length fiction, in flash there’s no room for recovery through context. If you’ve confused your reader, you’ve lost her. As in poetry, metaphor becomes an important tool because it makes the language work double time, saying one thing that illuminates another.

Be judicious with description. Describe only the most crucial elements of the piece carefully, clearly, and in as interesting a way as possible. But don’t make the mistake of leaving out information your readers need because you’re afraid of telling too much. Holding back important information is dangerous in flash, since the reader has less time to figure out what’s going on. This balance is difficult to strike and takes a lot of working and reworking. If you need to include lots of information in order for your reader understand what’s going on, it may be better to write a longer story.

An interesting person is interesting whether he or she is around for five minutes or five years—the same applies for characters. Having fully-rounded characters is crucial, but because micro prose is so short, there’s no time for long expository passages. You’ve got to get tricky with the ways you establish character:

  • Through action; just as in standard stories, what a character does tells us a lot about who she is.
  • Through subtext; it’s okay to make your readers work a little to see what’s really going on, as long as you give them all the clues they need.   
  • Through condensed flashback; this can be as short as a carefully-constructed, specific sentence or clause.

There’s no room for a classic plot arc in flash, so the story is boiled down to its most essential moments. Flash often focuses on one moment or action that does the work of an entire plot. That moment might demonstrate something about the essential nature of life or humanity. It might depict the moment a character’s life or outlook changes. It’s less about what happened and more about why it matters. 

A lot of flash focuses on setting as a main part of the piece, or even as its main idea. These pieces tend to show the reader something meaningful about the place, both by illustrating the place itself and by demonstrating the kinds of things that happen there (all the while suggesting something deeper).

These are just guidelines, of course; there’s no one right way to write any kind of fiction. The big thing to keep in mind is that every tiny part of your flash piece has to add something important. Otherwise, it doesn’t belong.

Rachel Wright is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Georgia State University. She has also studied at University College Dublin. Her work has appeared in The Stinging Fly and she was a semi-finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in 2009.

Photo by Brendan DeBrincat

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