Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

What is flash fiction?

Flash fiction is a very short story, usually somewhere between 750-1500 words. This isn't a hard and fast range, though. Some flash fiction runs shorter. Some longer. And there are many names for this kind of fiction: postcard fiction, micro-fiction, short short story, and sudden fiction. These terms are sometimes differentiated from one another. For example, micro-fiction often refers to the shorter of the bunch, under 400 words. Still, there's a lot of wiggle room.

Flash fiction doesn't give you the permission to skate by with an anecdote or a vignette. You still need to adhere to the demands of story: crafting character and conflict, increasing the intensity of tension, and building a story arc. It's still a short story—just shorter.

Start with a focused conflict. Think small. You would need a novel to cover the emotional difficulties of raising a child who does not communicate. So, for a flash fiction, you want to narrow the scope. In Alice Schell's "Birthday," Lukie, a young child who hasn't connected to the outside world, seems to express interest in something outside herself for the first time: a doll. The story follows what happens when Lukie's father buys that doll. Schell builds tension—at one point, the doll breaks, and the father frantically tries to fix it—and gives a resolution by showing Lukie kiss the doll. The reader doesn’t know if Lukie will go on to connect with her parents, but she's connected with the doll and that's significant. In 510 words, Schell illustrates the complex and powerful hopes of a parent through one very focused moment.

Writing flash fiction demands a heightened attention to the power of implication. You have very few words, so you don't have the luxury of stating too much—outside of the unfolding action—directly. Stay focused on the action and use details and characters' thoughts and actions to imply additional information. In Harry Humes' "The Cough," a man suffers from a cough brought on from working in a mine. Indeed, this issue of miners' health touches most workers and that's important to this story, but a flash fiction doesn’t have much room. So, Humes implies this in a brief, precise detail: "Some of the men who stopped at our house to see my father had tongues like fish that stuck out between words. Gray-faced, shoulders bony, they all seemed about to cave in."

With fewer words you're limited in what you can do, but that doesn’t mean flash fiction has less impact. If you use the space to full effect, you can write a staggering story.