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Why flash fiction will last

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | Random Acts of Optimism

Alison Wells

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Flash fiction is a relatively new phenomenon. While it’s exact length is still a little bit elastic and many establishments favour the 500 word rule, it’s generally said to be a story anything up to 1000 words in length.

Should flash fiction as a form be taken seriously? Is it not just a very short story? Is is veering too close to poetry? Is there anything about it that makes it definable, a standalone form, a new kind of art form. Is it a fad or will it last?

Any art form is an artifice, a psychological packaging of a particular kind of expression into a ‘thing’ with definitions that identify it. But there is a more amorphous element, a particular kind of art movement for example such as the impressionists ’emerges’, coalesces into something different or other from before, makes sense to people.

It is said now that flash fiction suits our society, fast moving, fast thinking, short, good to go, available in consumable bites or bytes, if you happen to have an Iphone app or an e-reader, are sitting on the train for twenty minutes. It’s said to suit our shorter attention spans.

Flash fiction is immediate. It’s true to say also that our western culture is interested hugely in personal storytelling, the first person narrative, reality tv,  the shaky hand held one person documentary, the presentation of the self by the YouTube generation, the perusal of memoir Whether or not it is told in the first person, flash is usually a distilled experience, of one or very few people. This is not new, the story of Robinson Crusoe was startling in it’s time, published in 1719, a fictional autobiography of the adventures of one man, the book was based on real life events. In Irish history, the seanchaí was a storyteller who promoted a cosy conspiratorial air, told stories that sounded almost as gossip. This intimacy can be replicated by the immediacy and microscopic quality of flash. We want a portrait of humanity, we want as, ever, a mirror for ourselves, we want in multicultural society to see both how we are the same and how we differ from others.

Flash fiction is a distillation of experience. Where in short stories the character has an epiphany, in flash fiction, what is presented is the epiphany itself. Sometimes, as I’ve said before in flash fiction character is plot. A character is a certain way, and then because of something, something that perhaps can only be hinted at or briefly sketched in the space allowed, they change, become other. It is the hint of the circumstance that means everything. As in poetry you need to leave clues, you need to be careful with words, you need to be precise, you need to layer meaning through the connotations of words, in flash you do something similar although perhaps not to the same level of abstraction.

But flash insists on the same precision of language, the same erudition. Etymology, the study of the origin of words is a useful tool, likewise the use of words that nestle close to others in sound and meaning, lending their resonances. Another device is the use of occasional cultural references that add whole dimensions in a word.

Flash demands brevity, carefully chosen short sentences balanced with longer ones for rhythm. Flash is the essence of good writing, the stripping back to what is absolutely necessary. So close is it to poetry that I found myself recently considering the line breaks of one of my pieces, because in flash fiction as in poetry, (and as in classical music and film), pause itself conveys something. It can be the prelude to sadness or shock, can signify hesitance or emotional distance on the part of the character or it can just be a moment to let the reader absorb the significance of a moment or feeling.
All good fiction requires that everything contributes to the story. So setting and scenery as well as character can be plot. In flash fiction this is also true but even more so. There are only so many lines.

But it isn’t poetry, although it comes close. It isn’t ‘lazy poetry’ without the attention to form. There isn’t the same level of distillation, there is more room for maneuver, for characterization. There is always an eye to the short story form, a place, a time, a person (usually), a change. But there is something very satisfying and elemental about flash, it’s a way of telling humanity about itself, a burst of recognition, a ‘flash’ (if you’ll pardon the pun) of realisation.

Do you agree? Do you think that flash fiction is something seperate that can survive, like a smaller Russian doll inside the larger forms of the novel and short story? What is your experience, if any, of flash fiction so far? [register with writing.ie to leave a comment, registration link right at the top of the page]

Flash fiction as a form is being taken seriously as demonstrated by the Dublin Review of books holding it’ssecond flash fiction contest.Hurry the closing date for this prestigious competition is only two days away, although you can enter online.

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