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 an upcoming workshop I’m teaching in flash fiction, forced me to sit down once and for all and ask myself: 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 writers 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:
1. 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.
2. 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. 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.)
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
Katey Schultz is Managing Editor of Cheek Teeth and recently completed a flash collection, Personae of War. Her latest project includes a series of flash fiction triptychs about minor urban catastrophes and sleeplessness. The “triptych” form was inspired by Cheek Teeth flash author J.A. Tyler.