A friend of mine recently asked about the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry and I found myself, somewhat embarrassingly, stumbling over words. I knew there had to be a difference—I’m a flash writer, after all, and an obsessive one at that. I can admit to hearing echoes of prose poetry in some flash fiction, but it would never occur to me to consider the two genres other than separately. Close, but separate nonetheless.
My friend’s question combined with a 5-week, live, online flash form writing course I’m teaching starting June 27, forced me to sit down once and for all and articulate for myself—and my friend—What are the defining characteristics of flash fiction?
Of course, I’m not the first person to ask. Thanks to Rose Metal Press, who published the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (2009), I had access to a 38-page mini-history of flash fiction from around the world. This introduction, written by Tara L. Masih, is one of the most engaging, specific introductions to a book I have ever read. I have a hard time not crossing my eyes when someone starts “talking history” but the combo of her succinct thoroughness and my own love of flash, has convinced me Masih’s intro is the best source around for the history of the genre. Coming in close second would have to be Charles Baxter’s introduction to the 1989 anthology edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction International.
It’s with these two books perched on my shoulders, and immeasurable amounts of my own study and practice, that I’ve gathered the following thoughts on what defines flash fiction:
- Flash fiction stories are 250-750 words, but this length has more to do with quality of attention than duration of attention. In an era of bombardment, Baxter emphasizes, we’re hungry for precise details and a widening of the moment. We’re anxious for an excuse to hold time and look closely. Some of the best flash out there today does precisely that.
- Flash fiction is different than prose poetry because it uses the prose line and paragraph form and always, always, tells a story. Something happens to someone, somewhere. Can a prose poem do that? Sure. But does it have to? No. Flash does, and it must. Additionally, most flashes can be categorized as: the monologue, the tale, the individual scene, the snapshot story, or the experiment. (Thank you, again, Rose Metal Press.)
- Flash fiction is more about reaction than action, therefore the situation frequently out-sizes the characters. The characters certainly react, but the reactions reveal more about the human condition in general than they do about any one, specific fictional person. We’re not dealing with heavy backstory or what if’s here. We hit the ground running; get in, get out—done.
- Flash fiction employs lyrical writing, which means that every word bears weight and bends the right direction. In lyrical writing, the skeleton of the sentence perfectly enhances its content and vice versa. It also means that flash avoids high-speed chases for the sake of themselves, for instance, but can certainly include high-speed chases for the sake of yearning, of revealing, of epiphany.
- Flash fiction is the story of smart surprise. It is always leaning toward “explosive moments of tremendous clarity” (Baxter, again). It catches us unaware by showing us that what we were looking for was always already there. In short—the truth is under our noses and flash enables us to see it.
With these characteristics in mind, I’m spending June clarifying the course content for Into the Flash, which is—yes, a chance to get prompts, get feedback on drafts, and read awesome examples of flash—but it’s also designed specifically to foster lyrical writing and smart surprise. Experience is not a writer’s only teacher. Empathy, observation, the imagination—these are equally, if not more important. To that end, I decided to come at teaching flash a bit more holistically, so that what I offer celebrates this form on the technical and craft levels, but also celebrates the writer’s keen experiences of curiosity, mindfulness, and metaphor in everyday life.
After all, the truth is in the immediate details of our lives. That’s what flash shows us over and over again. Any class trying to teach flash should therefore embody that principle. I’m excited to see how it all comes together. Meantime, I now have an answer to my friend’s question. And I hope you do, too.