Defining Short Short Fiction and Narrative Flash with Meg Pokrass

Flash fiction or narrative flash is usually fiction that falls under 1000 words. You may have heard it called “micro” or “sudden” when under 500 words or less. Flash can be six words, like Hemingway’s “For sale…,” or a much larger word count, like some of the flash links below, but more importantly, short short fiction should be compressed until every word counts. 

I do not mean take necessary components of your story away, such as details, like a vignette. A vignette is a smaller excerpt of a larger story, a cropping of a much bigger picture. Sometimes, so much is removed from a vignette, that the reader cannot ground themselves in the setting or connect emotionally with the characters. In flash fiction, the reader can see each necessary piece of the puzzle connect, from the hook to the “until” happens in the beginning. Or witness firsthand the ending section, the protagonist’s desires changing into the character’s actual change. Keep in mind: What the Protagonist wants is not always what he needs or receives in the end. Don’t make it easy for him either. 

“How will I do this?” You may ask. Easy…the middle of your flash, the thing that drives the reader to keep on reading, the conflict. But in short short fiction’s case―brevity is always key.

In this class, we will write wonderful stories that are vast in meaning, but we will squeeze every word and witness the power of small. You may have heard the old saying, “Less is more,” but never in your writing did you witness this beauty as in the perfectly completed flash fiction piece. I hope above I gave you the components to make a good go at it. I promise that I can make you discover the rare beauty in brevity in your writing.

Are you up for the challenge?

It will be difficult at first to “kill your darlings,” but I guarantee that keeping an open mind will open up great opportunities for discovery in your short short fiction. 

What Happens in Larger Works of Fiction as Opposed to Flash

The following Freytag’s [frī-täk] pyramid (below) illustrates what we consider to be a full narrative arc: exposition, inciting event, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution and denouement. Notice how the conflict in this pyramid focuses on the internal conflict of character vs. self. In literary fiction, the protagonist’s journey will root in this character vs. self inner conflict. You will have various other conflicts, yes: protagonist versus antagonist (external conflict) and many more, but in literary fiction, the main conflict will settle internally. We are not as interested in the external parameters, except in how these external conflicts further inform the internal conflict of character vs. self. A good example is to consider a literary story arc versus a formulaic story arc. In a literary arc, we are more interested in how the protagonist navigates situations and comes to terms, internally, emotionally, intellectually with these situations. In a formulaic arc, such as a romance arc, we end up following the he versus she arc in an externalized format including the “meet,” the “sex,” and the “breakup” or confirmation of relationship and so on. In a formulaic crime arc, we follow closely the “whodunit” paradigm, trying to figure the external conflict of one character versus another character, or rather, the detective versus the perpetrator, etc. In this course, we will focus on the internal conflict approach to writing character-based fiction.  

Also note, below, the “denouement.” The denouement is the “resonance” of the narrative. The ending resonance of the narrative should be planted prior to the ending resolution or last line of your narrative, so that when the reader comes to the last line, the reader is already sensing a cyclical resonance, or to put it another way, when the reader reads the last paragraph and especially the last line, he or she should already be thinking about a larger resonance of the overall narrative as well as the beginning and middle and several moments within the earlier narrative. The denouement, at one time, would be written into the end of the narrative, which was a form that basically handheld the reader and “made sure” the reader felt and considered particular, authorial intentions. Since the Modernists, the denouement has securely taken a reader-focused form, where the author is not force-feeding this resonance to the reader, but rather, more subtly suggesting and allowing the reader to come to his or her own denouement, which is arguably the more connective and artful form of denouement and resonance. This Modernist style as well as this sense of cyclical closure will create in your reader a denouement or resonance that encourages the reader to revisit earlier moments in your narrative, and perhaps will encourage the reader to read the work again while engaging personally. Essentially, you want your reader to want to read your narrative more than once. You also want your reader to invest personal experience, comparisons and so on, as he or she is reading more than once. This is, arguably, how particular narratives gain following. When a narrative encourages the reader to return to it again and again, while also encouraging the reader to feel as though they are comparing self to narrative, then you have a narrative that will be more connective, effective and lasting. In poetry and short short fiction, this inspiration to reread the narrative is essential. Truthfully, all short stories should be read more than once as a rule. Novels, too, but this is less followed with novels and short stories. Poetry and short short stories, however, are built on this expectation that a reader will read again and again so to ascertain more and more subtexts. 

In a longer short story, novella or novel, the pyramid or narrative arc will include all the setting, character and conflict details that provide the reader a fully encompassing experience.

So why, you may be asking, would someone read flash fiction?

Why would anyone read a form that leaves out some of these details, perhaps most of these details? There are many answers to this question, but the one I like best is that flash fiction when written well, precisely, with brevity and virtuosity, is as resonant as a perfectly formed poem, but it is prosaic, accessible, less built on metaphor than a poem, though, perhaps more so than a short story. The narrative voice is accessible and it forms frame, mood and tone, characters and conflict, but it is doing something that a longer work does not do as well. Flash fiction allows the reader a great deal of imaginative and exploratory room within the narrative. For readers who like room to explore within a narrative, room to stretch intellect and artistry, flash fiction can be a mental playground like no other prosaic form. As a writer of flash fiction, the key is giving just the right amount of strategic and precise detail to form this playground for the reader. Just as a child will become bored with a playground too familiar and full of rusty old equipment, or be overwhelmed with too much equipment, so can the reader. Finding the perfect balance will let the reader play and create and then return for more because this form is less about writers showing their geniuses and more about writers who can provide structure and room for their readers to exercise their own emotions and intellects. 

If I still haven’t convinced you, consider this. Even if you are a diehard long form writer, and you simply thought you’d try this flash thing everyone is talking about, imagine how much richer and complete your chapters and scenes will be when you approach them as little works all their own, within the larger context of the overall narrative frame. Writing and practicing flash fiction will make you more aware of your scene and chapter work within the larger work.

And for those of you who are already in love with the flash form. Welcome. Now, let’s stretch your talents and see if we can get you writing some new stories!

Reading Assignments

“Seven in the Morning,” by Max Ruback:

“The Mime and His Dog,” by Steven Douglas Gullion:

(More than one soft scene but discusses drawing a house for storytelling like our prompt for the week) “216 East Boalt,” by Jeannie Vanasco,

Discussion Assignment | What Concerns You Most About Writing Short Short Fiction?

Below, in the Discussion and Comments area, describe your biggest concern about writing short short fiction. Perhaps it is the form altogether. Or maybe you are concerned about a particular craft area. What is your biggest concern? Take time to engage with your course peers and discuss your concerns. You may find you are not alone.

Writing Assignment | Small Spaces, Big Memories

Take a piece of scrap paper or napkin. Draw a dwelling on it with a pen or pencil (it could be your childhood home or an old place of work, but please keep it fictional for now). Take a moment to fill in the details: The individual rooms, the basic furniture layout, maybe a door or two for a closet, a bathroom. This shouldn’t take very long, just a rough sketch of the levels in the dwelling and a few walls and labels. Now pick a room in this dwelling (maybe one of the smaller rooms―if you want to stick with the Kafka theme). Now write a short short fiction about this room with the following formula to get you started: 

A. Protagonist of Your Choosing

+ B. Antagonist the Protagonist is Avoiding

= C. Odd Confrontation

This will be a one-setting narrative flash. You only have 500 words to play with for this first assignment. This lesson is to show me what you can do with the hints of flash construction I spoke about in my intro and the information you took away from the lecture on longer fiction versus flash fiction above. Guidelines are as follows (you do not have to submit the drawing. The drawing is what we workshop leaders/professors call a larger “prompt” to get you thinking about your compressed story). 

Will you be able to fit the deeper meaning of your setting into the smaller space? Will you be able to defamiliarize tired themes?

Mindfulness + Writing | Lesson No. 3: Pedagogy of the Poetic Body

Hi Poets!

From aging to healing to wounding to growing, there is so much movement in the body, which mirrors that of the external world around us.  We’ll read some work below that looks at celebrating, questioning, raging against, accepting, the lived experience of CHANGE in the physical bodily form.  Then, I encourage you to write poems around this idea!  Feel free to also try your hand writing some prose (an essay, a short story) IN ADDITION to the poetry, thinking about change felt through the body.

(a side note on that:  I often find writing in other genres, such as essays, helps me to both step away from my poetry AND get closer to it by looking at my ideas and at language through another form.  Consider how you might write an essay/story and a poem about the same topic of change, and how they might read differently given the very different BODIES of the text…..looking at how textual bodies effect expression!)


Reading Assignment

Check out these poems, of the body, by the body.  Consider, also, how when we write we use our body.  Yes, poems come from the mind and emotions, but it takes the body (whether fingertips hit the keyboard or grip the pen) to express a poem.

Extra Reads
“I’ve Grown Very Hairy” by Yehuda Amichai
“Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou
“Poem to my Uterus” by Lucille Clifton
“Poem in Praise of Menstruation” by Lucille Clifton
Homage to my Hips” by Lucille Clifton
“Hair” by Gregory Corso
“Atlantis” by Mark Doty
“After Reading Mickey In The Night Kitchen For The Third Time Before Bed” by Rita Dove
“Cancer Winter” by Marilyn Hacker
“A Story About the Body” by Robert Hass
“A Hand” by Jane Hirshfield
“Anodyne” by Yusef Komunyakaa
“My Mammogram” by J. D. McClatchy
“Small Hands, Relinquish All” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
“My Mother’s Body” by Marge Piercy
“The Applicant” by Sylvia Plath
“Face Lift” by Sylvia Plath
“Heavy Women” by Sylvia Plath
“The Surgeon at 2 a.m.” by Sylvia Plath
“Epidermal Macabre” by Theodore Roethke
“Old Man Leaves Party” by Mark Strand
“Sketch for a Landscape” by May Swenson
Question” by May Swenson
Dance Russe” by William Carlos Williams 


Pedagogy of the Poetic Body
This is a look at Jaques Lecoq, a dance instructor, who employed a “via negativa” technique when teaching his dance students. This approach was essentially rooted in the idea that a student is not to do something “correctly” but that they must keep moving toward new ways of creating.

While he teaches dance, he firmly believes that body is a poetic medium (which you will read here) and that the laws of movement, dynamic rhythm, relationship with the space, emptiness and fullness, variation, scale and équilibre are key

As poets, I believe the same ideas can apply to our work. We can make a poem dance. There is no “right” but there are infinite modes of expression. I believe that balancing a poem on a page (with space, emptiness, fullness, variation, scale and équilibre) can make it spectacular. Of course this does not always equate, but thinking about writing poem AS A DANCE is a method of beginning to understand how to shape it. In this piece you’ll see that that he thinks of the body as it relates to natural things (fire and the sea, for example). I want you to think of your poems in these ways. What landscape are you creating? And how does movement (of the body, of nature) inform it? (See writing assignment below).


Writing Assignment

I want you to focus on writing three more poems, in addition to the ones you’ve written. 

1. After reading about Jacques Lecoq, I want you to feel your body move through a landscape (the sea? a fire? on a boat? sick, laying on the earth) and write a poem that utilizes exactly how your body would feel in this place. Use space, rhythem, language and movement (both musically and spatially) to tell this story. Inhabit yourself. When I say music, I do not mean rhyming.  There is a forum for this in Week 3.

2. As mentioned, above, write on the concept of CHANGE felt and lived in the body.  You can inhabit and translate CHANGE any way you wish. 🙂

3. Write a prose (block shaped) poem that uses little to no grammar (you may experiment with white space). You may set margins if you’d like. This is supposed to feel rigid. Perhaps your language will mimic this. Perhaps it will not. There is a forum for this in Week 3.



I hope you’ll head to the forums to post your poems. If you need help, contact me. I urge you to LET THESE BE GUIDING INSTRUCTIONS, but never, ever to get caught up in formality. If the prompts inspire you, run with it, but let yourself guide yourself. I am not caging you in by instruction.


Research and Submission Resources

Duotrope: Submissions Tracking (This resource is excellent for finding journals and anthologies interested in dark speculative narratives. Your particular voice will determine whether your narratives will be more suited toward literary journals open to character-based speculative or speculative journals open to narratives on a more diverse spectrum of genres and aesthetics. Before submitting to any publisher, make sure to read the journal first. Read several issues. Visit the site. Familiarize yourself thoroughly with the guidelines. Never submit to a journal or anthology edited by an editor you do not know or read. Submit to journals smartly, journals that reflect your aesthetics as they are, not what you want them to eventually be. If you have a favorite journal but aren’t sure if your aesthetic suits the journal yet, give your narrative time to grow and develop until it meets the standard of your reading. Then begin looking at the submission process.)

Publisher’s Marketplace: Publisher and Agent Research (Excellent for long work research and submission information–i.e. novels, novellas, collections, etc.)

Evolving Origins | Lesson No. 2: Personal Loss as Departure in Poetry

Today, we will be looking at Personal Loss as a point of Departure, and two very different poems in depth. Rather than think of departure as an ending, I’d like to delve into the idea of departure itself, and see what can grow from it. Think of all the people who are no longer in your life and the various circumstances surrounding each situation. How did these departures change or affect you? How did they point you in new directions whether in your work or in your actual life? 


Elegy” by Natasha Trethewey. Traditionally, an elegy is a poem of serious reflection, usually a lament for the dead. Interestingly enough, Trethewey’s father was alive when she wrote this elegy; in real life, he had not actually departed the physical world. Does this change your reading of the poem, esp the lines “Your daughter,/I was that ruthless”? What might it say about Trethewey and her father? What themes do you see in this poem?

Read the story behind Trethewey’s poem here.

What Work Is” by Phillip Levine. Is this a poem about work? And if so, what different kinds of work? How does the theme of work touch on his relationship with the speaker’s brother? Also, pay attention to the addressed, to the “you” in the poem. How does this “you” change? By the end of the poem, who is the “you?” What or who is the speaker losing/has lost/in danger of losing? How does this shape the poem?

Hear Levine read the poem here.

Please read and listen NPR podcast “After Loss, Turning To Poetry For Grief And Healing,” which highlights Kevin Young’s amazing project.

Writing Exercises 

  1. For 1 minute, list the names of those no longer in your life. Make sure to time yourself.
  2. Assignment 1 verb and 1 noun for each name listed.
  3. Choose 1 of the names, and write in one sentence what you want to say that person. Say it from your gut. Don’t overthink it.
  4. Now, write a poem addressed to this person no longer in your life. It can be an elegy, but doesn’t have to be. This is a very open assignment. The only requirement is that it addresses the person as if you are speaking directly to them.


Born to a Mexican mother and a Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists’ Collective, 2013). Her work is forthcoming or appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Bayou, Arts & Letters, Puerto del Sol, The Feminist Wire, Dialogist, B O D Y, Lana Turner Journal, Slice Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and elsewhere. In 2010, her story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize in Camera Obscura. A Leopold Schepp Scholar at New York University, she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. Rosebud was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned an MFA in Poetry, and was awarded grants from the American Jewish League for Israel and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. She was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where she completed post-graduate research. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater, she is at work a new play MIDNIGHT IN MATAMOROS with Bob Teague of Truant Arts; it will feature music by Carlton Zeus.  Her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and at work on her first novel, The Imitation of Crying.