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Is flash fiction really real? – Guest Post by Alison Wells

Flash fiction it's all the rage now. It's short, it's snappy, it's intense, it's bitesized. It's a short piece of fiction that ranges from the single word to a roundabout 1000 words at a stretch. It's as direct as poetry but without the same abstraction. It makes words work extra hard through attention to juxtaposition, erudition, etymology, sound and tempo. Flash fiction requires skill and wit, it requires a writer with nerves of steel, and a sharp steely scalpel that cuts out everything that distracts or is not necessary. It's a shot, instead of a pint. It's a story without the subplots, it's character as plot. It's story boiled down to it's essence: Character, motivation, action, epiphany (or you could be really clever and try a characterless epiphany or make the reader the character – anything to save words).

Have I convinced you yet? Is flash fiction really something different? Something that should be recognised it's own right?

Here in Ireland the recognition of flash fiction is definitely on the rise. After an Irish Times article (in which some of my views were quoted) the Irish Times proceeded to publish a flash fiction piece every day in it's newspaper. In an era when fiction is being edged out of many publications this is a terrific boon. In addition the lauded Irish national radio's arts programme RTE's Arena is now holding a flash fiction competition and both the Fish and Bridport Prizes have added flash fiction to their competition categories.

My own experience of finding flash fiction was through the Twitter community and hashtag #fridayflash. Here I found a place where I could create and read small pieces of fiction that, at it's most effective told a complete story and set of cerebral sparks. Many of these stories are being collated in Flashes of Sadness and Light where many of the characters appear again and again in each others stories.

We live in an age when everything and everyone is a story. We invent ourselves through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, we look the extremes of the human condition through reality TV. We have round the clock news delivering pathos, action, outrage, rhetoric, conflict all in a moment.

Flash fiction is quick, it hits hard like the headlines. Flash has to find the hook fast, it needs to speak to us to reflect or expand our experience or it loses the reader. The beauty of flash and the crux of why it is important is that while it is short, quick, intense, accessible, bite-sized for the Smartphone it is made of words and can give us the best of what fiction can give.

And what can fiction give us? - Reflection, resonance, depth, pause, perspective. Through the eyes of authors, through their choices we can experience news ways of looking at the world, new understanding or just be plain old entertained.

When you look back at a book you enjoyed, or a film or piece of music, there is often a key scene or in music a lyric or a theme that sticks in your head and sums everything up and that is the power of flash fiction, it can be that killer moment, that set of notes that twists the knife in your gut, it is the shady bit in the middle of a Venn diagram that says everything that needs to be said: confluence, convergence, coincidence, consequence.

Do you remember a look years on? Where you were standing when you heard the news? That's flash.

As a writer, writing flash has given me: the opportunity to experiment, the discipline of chiselling a piece down to its fundamental elements, the joy (as a psychology graduate) of making character itself tell the story. It also has provided the parameter for me to ask myself over and over again, what really matters in the story? What creates an effect and what makes a difference?

Reading, most recently David Gaffney's very short pieces (or micro fiction) as he likes to call them in his collection Sawn Off Tales what has struck me is that these flash fictions have the impact of stand up comedy gags. We have the anticipation, the initial idea planted in our heads as to where the story or the gag might be going, then the exposition, the story, the thing that happened and finally, the resolution – or maybe not – both in comedy and in flash fiction the power is sometimes in the not saying, in the juxtaposition of ideas or occurrences that sets off a trigger in the mind of the reader. So flash fiction will be, (and perhaps even more so than other fictions) a collaboration between reader and writer, a conspiracy or collusion of understanding, shared conventions understood and then exploded.

While some commentators are still not sure that flash fiction is more than a writing exercise, I am firmly convinced that it taps into our human desire for anecdote and wit, it requires quick thinking, many connections firing at once. In this modern age of multitasking and parallel processing of all kinds of media, flash fiction, in my opinion, is something that is smart, quick and effective but also something that will endure as a way of making sense of the world and a fantastic way to enjoy and experience that sense making.

10 thoughts on “Is flash fiction really real? – Guest Post by Alison Wells

  1. Rin

    A fantastic post, you've really captured the essence of flash fiction, I think. Particularly love that you say it's "the shady bit in the middle of a Venn diagram that says everything that needs to be said" - a perfect description!

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  2. Tania Hershman

    Really nice! I especially chime with "flash fiction will be, (and perhaps even more so than other fictions) a collaboration between reader and writer," - definitely!

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  3. A. J. Ashworth

    Great post, Alison. This speaks to me: 'When you look back at a book you enjoyed, or a film or piece of music, there is often a key scene or in music a lyric or a theme that sticks in your head and sums everything up and that is the power of flash fiction...'.

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  4. susanl

    Alison, great post and I agree with 80 per cent of it BUT you KNOW what I'm going to say here about the Irish Times.

    I wrote a whole lot of stuff here and expressed a whole lot of personal pain and anguish then realised that I am better off letting the links speak for themselves.

    More here about my reasons for not submitting to the Times: http://www.joyofwriting.net/blog/?p=730 and another great link: http://3menmakeatiger.blogspot.com/2011/12/famous-last-words-media-transparency.html

    (my credentials to speak: longlisted for Bristol Prize 2011, shortlisted for Fish 2011 and 2012, thrice shortlisted for Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. Lest I be written off as a troll.)

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  5. John Wiswell

    I liked your notion that a look you remember years later could “be” a flash. It isn’t, naturally, but it shares the essence and poignancy at the heart of much flash fiction.

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  6. Oscar Windsor-Smith

    Lots of thanks due here: to Alison Wells, for this excellent post, Calum Kerr for hosting/posting and to Sarah Hilary for tweeting the link. Why do I personally owe this debt of thanks? Because there is nothing so obscure as the obvious and, Alison, you have opened this idiot's eyes. I've been labouring away writing stories – often very short stories – and thinking that I'm writing flash fiction, purely because of the word count. Doh!

    I have been told on numerous occasions that I think too much. The penny has finally dropped. I've been gleaning intelligence, taking careful aim and calculating range, when what Flash calls for is the snap shot fired from the hip. You'd think that, as an ex-electrician, I'd understand the meaning of flash, wouldn't you? Well, I do now.

    I don't know if this old dog can change his ways, but at least I understand at last.

    Thanks again, Alison.

    BTW, Calum. Dump the piece I subbed. Seriously, I can see now why it doesn't fit.

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  7. Sulci Collective

    I agree with much of this, but don't overlook that flash doesn't have to involve story. There are plenty of flash pieces that are like Impressionist or even Abstract Expressionist paintings. Those that give a slice of an image and look at it from all angles, or are actually quite mathematical in their use of such a limited word count, looking at the armatures of language rather than trying to convey a visual image. Then there are words as dappling light, were there are no fixed boundaries and borders of the things being described.

    marc nash

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  8. Alison Wells

    Hi All. Thanks Vanessa, Pauline, AJ, Tania, John, Oscar, Marc so much for your feedback! I feel great enthusiasm when thinking about and (reading) flash fiction.

    Oscar. I'm glad you liked the piece and appreciate the compliment but as Marc says there may be more than one interpretation of what works as flash. I've certainly, like you, written pieces that are flash due to wordcount and I wouldn't discount the thinking you say you do. Flash has to be considered, thought out but then look like it hasn't been.

    Writing this article clarified for me what flash fiction can be at it's most effective. What you've said Marc, makes sense. Is what you are describing where prose edges closer to poetry? I think what I was trying to do was draw the lines around flash to make it distinctive but in doing that I am limiting the play we can have with language. In reality everything is smudged but as we people interested in psychology we know that people reach for definitions and parameters out of soup and dappled light. I'm happy with the dappled light too.

    I like what you said about the impressionist and abstract expressionist. But the overall has to have some coherence or pulse with the reader. The things I described might be ways of building up the punch. We layer and layer our own associations and they may or may not resonate with others.

    (Susan, sorry I was not thinking in that context when I mentioned the flash slot in the newspaper, just in terms of the recognition of flash fiction. I'll let others read for themselves.)

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