Friday, 21 June 2013

Say No to Flash Fiction - David Hartley

I don’t like the term flash fiction. Which seems a bit of an odd thing for me to say since I class myself as a flash fiction writer, I’ve had a book of flash fictions published, I’m part of a writing collective called Flashtag, and this is the official blog for National Flash Fiction Day 2013. But go with me on this; I don’t like the term – I do like the things themselves. Very much indeed.

Flash fictions are the art of brevity, and brevity is such an attractive thing in a gluttonous world of broadband teleportation, purple-sprouting dragon fruits, and eye-pad iPads. They fit well; on screens, in lives, into the fragmented rituals of our daily timeframes. And I believe they are a healthy medium too. They teach us control. And patience. And that leaving things out is almost always better than putting things in. Ahem.

They show us that stories don’t have to be long and consuming to be long in the mind and wholly consuming. Characters don’t need names. Or descriptions. Or back stories, or baggage, or a claim to the iron throne through something your half-sister’s cousin’s marriage partner’s spy said to a baby dragon seven thousand years ago. All you might need to say is ‘the ventriloquist’ and already the reader has a picture in their heads – and so do you, the writer, and now all you need to do is play that picture like a postmodern symphony of flavour until everything is mixed up and frightening and unsettling and then – BANG – hit them with the creepy dummy that they’ve almost forgotten existed, and stalk out of the room triumphant.

My problem with the term flash fiction is the word ‘flash’. It implies the brevity – ok that’s fine – but it also implies a certain unimportance, and that’s not fair. As more and more people discover flash fiction – readers and writers – its critical importance as a medium is becoming increasingly apparent. Many of the major short story writing awards now have a flash fiction category, and published collections are leaving in the super-short tales, rather than taking them out. Flash fictions fit neatly in the allotted timespan of an open-mic spoken word night, and as we train ourselves to speak brief on social media, our creative writings are evolving in the same way. Flash fiction is crucial – not a flash in the pan.   

Ultimately, flash fiction is just another way of saying ‘short story’ which, in turn, is another way of saying ‘story’, because the length of a thing does not necessarily determine if a tale has been told or not. I came to this realisation when I read the short story ‘Super-Toys Last all Summer Long’ by Brian Aldiss – which became the bloated and flawed film A.I: Artificial Intelligence in 2001. Aldiss’ tale is not short enough to be considered as flash fiction, but it is still surprisingly brief and packs a powerful punch – which the film takes a long and relatively weak time to deliver. Aldiss chose his words carefully and released just the right amount of information to kick that chill into my spine, and, in turn, my fingers onto the keyboard.

Aldiss showed me that even that most complex of genres – science fiction (another troublesome term) – could be delivered in a tiny amount of words for the same, or even greater, affect. But that affect does not come quickly. And here lies another problem with ‘flash’ – it implies the writing is quick. Well, compared to a novel, yes your flash fiction is going to be finished first. But that doesn’t mean you should trust your first words any more than you would the first draft of your novel. Flash fictions need gentle massage and brutal violence too; a shed word here, a change of tone there, a restructure of that sentence, a shift in point of view or, sometimes, a complete re-write. Make those words work hard, because they are no less important that the 100,000 words tussling to be free in that epic romance fantasy spy drama you’ve got going on deep in the back of your mind.

But really; it doesn't matter what we call them. As long as they get people to ink their quills and hammer all night on clunky keyboards in the creation of something beautiful, then their mission is accomplished. And if ‘flash fiction’ as a term has one thing going for it, its this; it still makes people frown, turn their heads and say ‘what’s that then?’ And when they discover what it is - and how accessible, exciting and experimental it is - there really is no turning back. 


  1. Some great points here - I'm not totally sold on "flash" either, but it's won the nomenclatural battle in the last few years.

    What would you suggest as an alternative? Very short fiction? Short shorts? The Chinese terms "smoke long" and "palm-sized" seem much more evocative than any of the English contenders...

  2. I loved the term 'sudden fiction'.
    Great point about rewriting, too!

  3. Although 'flash fiction' is becoming more recognised as a term, I'm not keen on it for the reasons above.
    I now much prefer and am starting to use the term 'short fiction' for my writing which I know Tania Hershman has used. I don't set out to write a story in x words. Many of my first draft end naturally in the no mans land of 500-1000 words and the only reason they end up as flash is the word count on a competition i.e. it's generally easier to edit out than 'pad out' to a short story

  4. Thanks everyone. Someone on my facebook page just suggested 'Bonsai fiction - embodying all the nobility of the novel or tree in miniature' which is really sweet and neat. I suppose there's no real good way of satisfying everyone's needs. Its the same with 'Science Fiction', which seems to dictate that the story should in someway be about science but lots of very good SF down the years has proven quite the opposite. Same with 'fantasy'!

    There's probably a story in this somewhere!

  5. I don't mind 'flash' - I think more of bolts of lightening than flashes in the pan... brilliant, jaw-dropping, potentially devastating. 'Lightning Fiction?'

    I don't like 'sudden' (sorry Kymm) as it implies thoughtless and I agree with you about all that precision tooling stuff. (ahem indeed)

    But I'm loving the Bonsai!