Basics of writingShort fiction

Try flash fiction

From Rick:

Although Scott and I talk a lot about novels, because those are what both of us primarily write, everything we say in this blog applies equally to shorter forms. In this post I’ll discuss the shortest form: FLASH FICTION.

Before I discuss it, let’s do a quick summary of the primary story forms. I’m excluding plays and poetry only because they are in a different category from prose fiction and play by different rules and not because I have anything against them.

Prose fiction is classified by its length (in decreasing length): novel, novella, novelette, short story, and flash fiction (also called a short short story or micro-fiction). NOTE: Not everyone differentiates novelettes as different from novellas and short stories.

I want to make it clear that there are no set and universally agreed upon word-length categories that define these. The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) uses one set of definitions for purposes of their award categories. They don’t define flash fiction separately.

Short story = under 7,500
Novelette = 7,500-17,500
Novella = 17,500-40,000
Novel = over 40,000

To illustrate the lack of standards and inconsistency, on the Internet, I found another set of length definitions, which isn’t even internally consistent:

Short short story = no more than 2,000
Short story = up to 7,500
Novelette = 20,000-25,000
Novella = a short novel around 50,000
Novel = roughly 80,000-100,000 (varies with genre. YA tends to be shorter)

This classification has obvious gaps. Where does your work fall if it’s 35,000 words or 10,000 words?

I think the following is reasonable and more in keeping with reality.

Flash fiction = under 1000 words (some would put this under 500)
Short story = 1000-10,000 (or 1000-15,000 if we remove novelette)
Novelette = 10,000-20,000
Novella = 20,000-40,000 (or 15,000-40,000 if remove novelette)
Novel = over 40,000 (some might prefer this to be over 50,000)

Some flash fiction advocates add a smaller category called micro-flash and define that as anything under 500 words or even under 100 words.

So what’s the point in making categories at all? Well, publishers like to be able to sort them into price categories (but they don’t pay authors based on length anyway). Contests generally need length categories. If you’re self-publishing something that’s 10,000 to 20,000 words, it’s up to you whether you want to call it a short story or a novella.

The main purpose of this blog post, however, is not to talk about length categories. We’re going to focus on FLASH FICTION. This a good time to remind you what “story” means. In its broadest definition, a story has a beginning, middle, end, with characters, conflict, and a resolution of that conflict. Conflict in this context means that the main character has a goal but something stands in the way of reaching that goal. To be a complete story, the character needs to overcome that conflict and reach his goal. Conflict involves making a decision. I’ve often heard it said that if there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

The above definition is a very broad one, with many exceptions, particularly when it comes to literary fiction and flash fiction. For example, in the latter case, there may not be a middle. Conflict exists in many and doesn’t have to be in the reader’s face or sharply defined. It can be implied; it can be external, internal, or both.

Wikipedia has this to say about flash fiction: “Unlike a vignette, flash-fiction often contains the classic story elements: protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications, and resolution. However, unlike a traditional short story, the limited word length often forces some of these elements to remain unwritten – that is, hinted at or implied in the written storyline. Different readers thus may have different interpretations of the flash fiction.”

One famous piece of ultra-short fiction (before it was called flash fiction) comes from Hemingway: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” Those six words form a full story. The details are left to the reader’s imagination. Some flash does fall into the realm of a vignette, which is a short scene with a focus on one particular, possibly intense, moment. I’ve seen flash fiction that doesn’t reach a conclusion or may not be fully resolved. That’s true of some short stories, as well. Therefore, length is unimportant. What matters is the impact on the reader, and good flash can have a powerful impact.

There are numerous online magazines that publish flash fiction. < href="">THE VESTAL REVIEW is a good place to start. In its own words, it “… is the oldest magazine dedicated exclusively to flash fiction. It has been published continuously since March 2000.” For other examples (and for places to publish your own work, flash or otherwise), check out the magazine listings at WWW.DUOTROPE.COM

FABULA ARGENTA, which I publish, also publishes flash. The first issue has three superb flash pieces.

I was privileged to be in a private workshop for several years where the members would write and critique flash fiction for one weekend every month or two. Many of the participating authors had numerous publication credits, so I was exposed to some of the best. I do not pretend to be a good writer of flash fiction, but I think I can recognize superb pieces when I see them.

If you want to hone your writing skills, flash fiction offers a great opportunity because it teaches economy of words. Study it. Join a critique group that specializes in flash. SILVER PEN has a flash fiction section under The Workshop and is looking for both new and experienced members.


A few weeks back, Jim Harrington did a blog post at Flash Fiction Chronicles on WHY WRITE FLASH FICTION. He gives good reasons to play with flash from time to time, even if you don’t plan to publish your flash pieces.

A character for one of my novels began as a 600-word piece of flash fiction that I had previously workshopped. Don’t underestimate the value and utility of flash for experimentation. Explore this short form and learn from it. You might even get some publication credits and exposure in the process. That certainly can’t hurt.


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