“A Little Fable” (1906) by Franz Kafka
“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At first it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”
“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.
A Note on the Short Short Story or Flash Fiction
The most universally accepted word count is 1,000; however, many editors consider anything under 1,500 to be a short short story. There are variations between writers and editors regarding what is a flash fiction and what is a microfiction, etc. I tend to think of microfictions as shorter than flash fictions. Here is a general breakdown that I follow:
- Novel — Over 70,000 words
- Novella — 17,500 to 70,000 words
- Novelette — 7,500 to 17,500 words
- Short Story — 1,000 to 7,500 words
- Short Short Story — Under 1,000 words
There is the additional question of what separates flash fiction from a vignette. I like to think of flash fiction as a fully encapsulated narrative arc, with all the trimmings, only many of the trimmings and details are suggested, planted between the words, encouraging the reader to work these out for him or herself, but certainly not forgotten. A vignette leaves details out. It is a part of a story. It may be a character focus or setting study, a section that would function as an aside to a fuller narrative arc. For the linguists, think of the flash fiction as a fully functioning clause without all the adverbial modifiers and phrases. Think of the vignette as a phrase.
The following pyramid illustrates what we consider to be a full narrative arc.
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 space 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 intellects.
If I still haven’t convinced you, consider this. Even if you are a diehard 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 Assignment | Five Stories by Lydia Davis (Conjunctions)
Discussion Assignment | What Concerns You Most About Writing Flash 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 Problems
Just as Kafka writes of a small maze and a small mouse, we are going to begin our writing exercises here. Choose a very small space. This may be a room, a box, or any manner of concepts. Be creative. Now, put yourself in this space with a problem so big you cannot possibly solve it in this small space. Now, solve it. You may be you or an animal or someone you admire or someone you loathe. Maybe you are Miley Cyrus stuck in a confessional. Maybe you are the Pope stuck in a tanning bed. Have fun with it.