This is a subject that has fascinated me ever since I discovered – and ventured into – the world of flash. I’ve previously pondered the difference between prose poetry and flash (you can read it here, if you’re interested) but I’ve recently been looking for publications (online and print) that pay for short stories and I’ve found that flash and short story have a huge and blurry overlap.
Stories can be as short as Hemingway’s famous six-worder (‘For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.’) and they can range all the way up to twenty thousand words or so. From what I’ve discovered between twenty and forty thousand would be a novella and anything over forty thousand is a novel. The latter statistic surprised me as I’d always thought that a novel needed to be at least eighty thousand words (adult novels, that is, children’s books are generally shorter).
Of late (over the last twenty years, let’s say) the short story has developed ‘specialisms’, the most discernible of which is flash fiction. Different editors and publications all have their own definitions of the difference between a flash and a short story, with upper word limits ranging from 50, 60, 100 or 250 words all the way up to 1500 or 2000 for flashes. Short story limits can look similar, although the very short stories (under 500 words) are generally acknowledged as flash, sudden- or micro-fictions. Just looking at these numbers, it is really easy to see a huge overlap between flash and short story – so how do you decide if you have written a flash or a short story?
Musing over the above question has led me to a minor epiphany – perhaps the difference is not at all the number of words that comprise the story, rather it is the content of the story? The way I’m now considering small fictions is in this light, and, so far, I seem to be justified in it. So here goes:
A short story is complete. It is not difficult to get into, and can be read superficially as well as being interrogated for a deeper meaning. There will be characters, a story (conflict, battle, resolution etc) and an ending. Dialogue is always a good addition, as is a detailed location. Short stories, once read, should engender a feeling of satisfaction and closure, a feeling of being done with this narrative.
Flash fiction, on the other hand, is packed with more meaning than the word count would seem to allow. Flashes can contain everything that a story does, and must flow narratively – anything too ephemeral is probably straying into the realm of prose poetry. While some flashes can be read just once and seem to be superficial complete stories, good flashes often leave the reader slightly bemused, or even lightly frustrated – like getting to the last page of a gripping thriller and finding that the last couple of pages have been ripped out by some sadist. Good flashes can, and should, be read over and over again, with more meaning and different interpretations presenting themselves with each fresh reading thanks to the meaningful gaps in the narrative. NB Not plot-holes but deliberate gaps left by the author so the reader can arrive at their own inferences. It is important to trust your reader to read flashes ‘properly’ and to avoid the temptation to over-explain what’s going on. A successful flash is difficult to write and should be challenging (but satisfying) to read – but when you get it right, you will know it!
To summarise, here’s a metaphor for you: we can say that a short story uses a wide-angle lens to show everything in the picture in crystal sharp detail, while a flash uses a macro lens, close and tight on the focal point, with the background out of focus and open to interpretation and extrapolation.
I’ll finish off with my latest drabble (100-words exactly) which can be found here on Drablr if you would like to see more of the short form.
See you all soon
When the bears returned from their walk a small girl had broken and entered their home – just entered, really, as the door was unlocked.
They found that not only had she trespassed, she had stolen their food too, sampling a bit of each bear’s porridge, before bouncing on each of their beds.
Then they discovered that the intruder was still there, sleeping in the smallest bed. They stood around uncertainly, wondering what to do.
Eventually, the small girl stirred and stretched, yawning prettily. Then she saw the bears and screamed.
So they ate her, just to stop the noise.