Flash Fiction, the Shortest Stories in Creative Writing
Fiction you can read in a flash
Flash fiction is a relatively recent form of creative writing, and it's perfect for our low attention span society. It can be written and read in minutes or seconds -- though ideally it relates a story that's more than the sum of its carefully selected words. Flash fiction often draws on familiar references and cultural memory to bring more information to the story than what's actually stated. This form of storytelling is intense, with lots of meaning packed into a handful of characters.
I enjoy the brevity of this creative writing style: I can be intimidated by huge projects, so a prose form where a complete work can be written in one or two sittings (or even a few minutes) is perfect for me. And I value the way it can be combined with new communication tools like Twitter to inject stories into our everyday lives.
In this article, I discuss flash fiction and provide examples and creative writing prompts; I also link to publishers (updated 11/2/16) and an ongoing contest.
What is flash fiction?
Flash fiction is a storytelling form defined primarily by length -- although even there, you'll find no real consensus. The broadest rule seems to be stories that are under 1,000 words, although many publishers set their requirements much lower. Five hundred words or less is quite common, with some venues setting their limits around 250-300 words.
While extremely brief stories have been around for centuries, it's only since the early 1900s that this technique began to be formally recognized as a unique writing form. Hemingway is often credited with helping to define and develop this style of storytelling.
Ideally, flash fiction should convey a story: the reader should have a sense that events have happened and left the characters changed in some way. However, because these pieces are so short, many elements of the narrative may be revealed through implication or suggestion.
Other names for this writing form:
sudden fiction, short short story, micro fiction
All genres are appropriate for flash fiction
I started reading sci-fi and fantasy in college and started writing it then as well. My love of sci-fi (at least in written form) has waned over the years, but I still enjoy fantasy and its offshoots, urban fantasy and paranormal romance. When I started writing fantasy, I was instantly frustrated, because the stories I wanted to tell seemed to dwarf my ability to tell them. When I tried to write short stories, I almost always felt like I needed a larger format to do them justice. But writing a novel scared me; it was too big, bigger than I thought I could manage.
Oddly, though, I found that I could tell a fantasy story with flash fiction. The scope of the story had to be fairly narrow, but I could do it, and I wrote a handful of flash pieces that I'm proud of (even though I only got one of them published).
If you're interested in experimenting with a new genre, flash fiction is a great way to do it; you can get your feet wet (so to speak) and decide if you like it or not without spending a lot of time trying to craft a longer piece. You can also use it to try out different styles of writing, different points-of-view (including gender swaps), and techniques that are new to you.
Twitter fiction: a challenging variation
Many authors now use Twitter to share their work. Long stories and occasionally novels have been shared one tweet at a time, but as a delivery mechanism, Twitter is best suited for flash fiction. But Twitter fiction is exceptionally challenging; the 140 character limit means you have a sentence, maybe two, to communicate the story. Storytelling that short is difficult, but it can be done -- and it's a great exercise in making every word count.
Here are some Twitter feeds of super-short stories:
VeryShortStory, Twitter sized stories by Sean Hill.
Terse Tales, a collection of original, Twitter-length stories by Christopher Ryan.
Twitter also held its first ever fiction festival in 2012. The event ran from November 28 to December 2, and in a way, it both acknowledged and celebrated the trend of sharing stories using the Twitter platform. Writers and publishers both large and small participated using the hashtag #twitterfiction. I even got on the bandwagon! I'd been wanting to try Twitter fiction for a while, so I put together some selections and submitted them to Nanoism, which requested themed submissions for each day of the festival. My entry for the theme "Legendary" was chosen and published.
Wired magazine asked famous sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writers to pen six-word stories. Read the results, which include entries from Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ben Bova, and William Gibson, among others.
Flash fiction examples
Here are three flash pieces I wrote as exercises in response to writing prompts. (Keep in mind that these stories aren't necessarily publication quality.)
Example 1 -- Writing Prompt: "A stitch in time saves nine."
Gasping in the Wind
Sandy paused in her breathless run, dropping her bag in the dirt and clutching her side. The pain was like tiny needles jabbing into her. A stitch in time just hurts, she thought. It was her own fault for daydreaming so long. She'd set out just after breakfast to pick blackberries for her mother to make into jam. It was only when she'd caught the faint sound of her mother's voice on the wind that she'd realized how late it was.
Another call sounded, louder and more threatening. Sandy looked out into the distance, trying to distract herself from her labored breathing and her aching side. Dark clouds were flooding the horizon, and the first hint of the storm kicked up dust from the path. She stood, hunched over, hands on her knees, listening to the twin howls of her mother and the wind.
She wished she had someplace else to run.
Example 2 -- Writing Prompt: "a damaged object"
Thick silver duct tape covered the book's spine. "You can't get these any more," he says, "it's out of print. Well, you can get a good copy if you're willing to pay a dealer, but they want like a hundred bucks, and it's not worth that to me. It's a paperback, for chrissakes. A hundred bucks is almost enough to pay the power bill some months."
I pick up the book, wondering why the previous owner couldn't have used something less obvious to repair the damage, like clear mailing tape.
"I had a standing order on half.com for two years trying to get that thing. Every time one came up, somebody else got it first. I checked used bookstores too, but nothing. You'd think they'd reprint it. People must want it."
I flip over the book, trying to read the description on the back cover, but the tape is in my way, cutting off the last few words of every sentence. I look at the cover again -- what I can see of it, anyway. The eighteen wheeler in the drawing doesn't seem to warrant so much effort.
"It's the middle book of a series," he explains. "That's why I wanted it so bad. I got the first one used, before I knew the second one was such a pain to find. The third one I got new, but it didn't make any sense without this one."
I nod and put the book down.
At least he reads.
Example 3 -- Writing Prompt: "around the coffeepot"
Before the Locksmith
A clunk, followed by prolonged rattling, disturbed the quiet of mid-morning. Sally turned from her weeding and glanced around the neighborhood. Sunlight glinted on metal three doors down; a container was rolling down her neighbors' walk. A moment later, Marie followed, hauling the large, elaborate coffeemaker George had bought her for Christmas. Sally realized the loose metal tin was the pot. Marie dropped the appliance on the curb with a sickening crash. It must be broken, Sally thought, looking at the machine, then at the forlorn pot, resting a few feet away at the edge of the grass.
Sally returned her attention to her garden until movement caught her eye again. Marie had returned, this time with a CD player. It smashed on the sidewalk, sending bits of plastic in all directions.
Other items followed over the next hour: a landslide of silk ties and expensive shirts; an equally impressive pile of lingerie; a DVD player George had brought home recently; the collection of china dolls he'd given Marie over the years. There was a bag of CDs so heavy that the bottom had ripped, sending the contents spilling into the street; they lay there in a cracked plastic heap while the breeze tugged at the bag, making it dance in midair. And on one side sat the shiny coffee pot George had been so proud to show them. The best money can buy, he'd said. Marie had stared thin-lipped at the appliance and said nothing.
As Sally watched, Marie emerged and began pulling up the flowers from the garden: exotic lilies, delphinium, gladiolas, verbena. Up they came, roots dangling, clumped with soil. Marie ferried them to the curb, depositing them on the pile of clothes. Then she knelt down, took the coffee pot and filled it with upended flowers. When the pot was full, she wiped her hands on a rose-colored gown and walked away, leaving behind the roots dangling over the sides of the pot, exposed to the summer air.
More flash fiction examples
Want more flash fiction examples, including pieces of specific lengths? Check out my companion article: Examples of flash fiction, including twit-fiction, drabbles & more.
Creative writing prompts to inspire you
Ready to try writing flash fiction yourself? Here are some prompts to inspire you! I find writing prompts are a great way to get inspired and give your creative mind a jump start. I typically use them for writing exercises, but sometimes they spark an idea that will turn into a marketable story.
Some of these prompts are ones I made up and some are from other sources. I've made a note of the source if it originated with someone else. (The ones from author Lilith Saintcrow are well suited to writing fantasy if that's where your interests lie.)
- Use the following words in a story: water, rough, distant.
- Use the following words in a story: bells, ache, grave.
- You open a dusty box. Write a story about what you find inside.
- Write a story involving a broken object that has been repaired in some obvious way (that is, the damage and the means of repair -- scotch tape, rubber bands, superglue, rubber cement, or similar -- are still visible) but is still being used.
- Use the following line in a story: "Even before I opened the letter, I knew what it was going to say." (from Writer's Digest)
- Write down the first word (or name) that comes to mind when you think each of the following letters: P L M E A. Write a scene or story that uses all five of the words/names you chose.
- Open a fresh Google search. Close your eyes and randomly hit three keys on your keyboard. Open your eyes and see what Google auto-suggests. Use one of these recommendations to jump start a short story. (from @Figmentfiction on Twitter)
- First lines: "The moon is rising fast tonight." "If only we had held the walls." "The danger wasn't on the surface." "A city burned last night." (from Lilith Saintcrow on Twitter)
LitReactor's writing contest
Need more encouragement to write? LitReactor holds a monthly flash fiction contest based on a specific writing prompt (usually a photo). The word limit varies; I've seen it as high as 250 words and as low as 14. All genres are eligible for the contest.
Submit your story in the comments section of the page for the current month. Entries will be judged on the last day of the month and a writing-related prize (often a book) is awarded.
This page links to the current and past contests.
Flash fiction publishers
Ready to submit your stories? The following are online and/or print publications of flash fiction and short stories. Listings are ranked by the submission length accepted (shortest to longest). Links go to the submission guidelines. (NOTE: some venues have limited reading periods, so be sure to check the guidelines carefully before submitting.)
Note: some, but not all, of these listings are for paying markets.
- The Drabblecast
Wants unusual, original stories for their audio podcast. Seeks twabbles (exactly 100 characters), drabbles (exactly 100 words), and longer pieces (500 - 4000 words). Closed to submissions until 2017.
- 100 Words
Accepts stories 100 words long (excluding the title) for their web zine.
- Boston Literary Magazine
Accepts drabbles (100 words exactly), dribbles (50 words exactly), and quick fiction (250 words or less) for their print publication. Closed to submissions until 2017.
Publisher of micro fiction, prose poems, and micro essays of 300 words or fewer.
- Vestal Review
Accepts stories under 500 words. Prints two issues annually plus web publication. Reading periods are February-May and August-November.
- Toasted Cheese
Wants flash fiction of 500 words or less for their online journal.
- Spilled Milk
Wants unique, experimental fiction of 750 words or less for its online literary magazine.
- decomP magazinE
Seeks literary flash fiction (no genre pieces) for publication online.
- Every Day Fiction
Accepts stories under 1000 words for its online magazine. Also prints an annual anthology.
- SmokeLong Quarterly
Seeks flash pieces under 1000 words for its online magazine.
Thanks for reading! I hope you're learned some things about flash fiction and gotten inspired to try writing it yourself.
If you know of other good publishers of flash fiction, please share them in the comments.
© 2014 C. A. Chancellor