Flash Fiction is, quite simply, a short story of under 1,000 words. There are a few publications or writers that might quibble over that, as some set the word limit a bit higher or lower, but in the main 1,000 words is the agreed upon ceiling. As a form, flash fiction has been around since long before it was ever given a name, and many writers over the years have tried their hand at short-shorts, micro fiction, and flash. In modern publishing flash fiction has quickly established a niche for itself because it is an ideal length for electronic publishing and busy schedules -- short enough to be read and enjoyed on a laptop or cell phone while commuting, web surfing, or taking a break at the office, but also complete enough to be a satisfying and memorable reading experience when done well.
Short Does Not Equal Simple -- Or Easy
Many non-writers (and quite a few novice ones) assume that flash fiction must be pretty simple, since it is so short. All writing is, at base, pretty simple stuff if one considers it merely the putting of words on a blank page. It takes more time to put down enough words to create a novel than it does a short story, but both could be considered fairly simple acts if only looked at mechanically. Writing well, on the other hand, is no mere exercise in endurance typing. While flash, as an ultra-short form, will never demand the time investment of other forms of fiction, it does posses its own peculiarities that make it a challenge to pull off well.
Firstly it should be noted that the best flash fiction -- indeed the only actually successful flash fiction -- is in the form of a short story and not simply a vignette. That means it possess a narrative through-line, and actually tells a complete story rather than simply creating a scene or hitting a punch-line or twist. With only 1,000 words to work with, crafting a whole story can be difficult to say the least -- and there are of course certain kinds of stories that can never be told at that length. But all the elements must be in place, plot, character, setting, theme -- and they need to move, to have a point, and reach a resolution or synthesis.
Do you still think flash fiction is easy?
Flash Fiction as a Writing Exercise
If you can pull off a decent flash story, odds are you can leverage those same writing and storytelling skills at longer lengths as well. Working within the concise confines of flash is a great exercise, as it teaches you to use language to accomplish storytelling feats, and not the mere reliance on volume of words. If you can paint a scene with a few deft passages, or make characters seem real in only a brief exchange of dialog, you have craft enough to create powerful fiction at any length. The constraints of flash fiction therefore are really one of its great strengths, as it forces the writer to make every word count. A flash story can afford no fat, no fluff, and no wasted words.
Many writers utilize writing exercises to work out different things -- whether it be exploring a character they may wish to use in a novel, trying out a different style of dialog, or simply attempting to keep the engines revving by getting words onto paper. In many cases flash fiction makes a superior alternative to these writing exercises, for two reasons. The first is that, since it demands the writer actually creates a narratively sound complete story rather than simply throw paragraphs down on paper, the storytelling muscles will be exercised more fully, and the challenge will bring out more in the writer.
The second reason has to do with publication. Since there are now many excellent flash fiction markets available to the writer, these writing exercises need not be confined to the private recesses of the writer's hard drive. One of the best ways to improve as a writer -- both as a craftsman and as a career professional -- is to finish work and submit it to publication. The beginning writer will benefit enormously from learning about editors, publishers, markets, and readers through this process. No one ever improved in a vacuum -- and writers need readers in order to see their own reflection.
Flash fiction contests, daily challenges, and writing prompt challenges have become a popular part of the online writing community in recent years, and all represent great ways to hone one's craft and practice faster writing, connect with other writers, and stay motivated.
Why Write Flash Fiction?
Aside from the reasons already discussed, flash fiction allows a writer the freedom to grow. Since it is a complete form, and a publishable one, it is a viable alternative for experimentation in voice, theme, style, and technique. Have a ridiculous idea for a character or setting? Try it out in a flash story before you expand upon it for a longer work. Want to try to imitate a particular style? Flash fiction is the perfect medium to attempt something completely or unusually different. Indeed, when it comes to flash, a certain unity of style is almost necessary to make the piece work, and a heavily stylized story -- in which the mode of expression is as much a conveyor of information as setting, plot, or character -- is sometimes the best way to make the most of 1,000 words.
Flash fiction is a form perfectly suited to our modern world -- and the modern mind. But for it to really work it requires a writer willing to take risks and to go out of their way to make every word count. Often the best flash is a story that hints at larger things, points outside of the picture frame formed by the hard-ceiling word limit, and tricks the audience into thinking there is more to the story than just what they are seeing on the page. That should be the ultimate goal of the writer of flash -- to create the illusion of something bigger, to convince readers that they are in fact reading something longer, richer, and more elaborate than a 1,000 word short story.