The short story gets flash
Flash fiction – short stories of 500 words or less – are more popular than ever. As one of the organisers of Chorlton Arts Festival’s Flash Mob writing competition, Sarah-Clare Conlon knows the form well. Without exceeding a strictly enforced word limit, she explains what it’s all about.
I drink my whisky neat; wear my Chanel No5 as eau de parfum. As an editor, I’m trained to chop copy down to the shortest, sharpest kick. Maybe this is why I love flash fiction: only the purest essence will do.
Less than 500 words is considered flash or micro fiction, or short-short stories. But just because it’s compact and concise doesn’t mean it’s lacking in punch. A bantam-weight boxer can still deliver a mean right hook – but he’s also nimble on his feet and canny with it.
Flash fiction is no less significant than a ‘proper’ short story agrees Nik Perring, author of the collection Not So Perfect: “Long or short doesn’t mean good or not as good.” Short-short stories are also nothing new, says Perring: “Kafka wrote them. Hemingway wrote them. Chekhov wrote them. Vonnegut wrote them. And that’s only naming a few; the list goes on.”
“Really good flash has a kind of formal and emotional exactness. It’s a beautiful enigma.”
In fact, Ernest Hemingway – so ’flash fiction grandmaster’ David Gaffney tells me – “once said his best work was a story he wrote in just six words: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’
“There’s a lot to learn from authors who’ve mastered this ultra-short form,” believes Gaffney (pictured). “Precision, efficiency, economy of language. Really good flash has a kind of formal and emotional exactness. It’s a beautiful enigma. A micro story is a nippy little thing that can park on a sixpence and accelerate away quickly.”
But the writer of flash collections Sawn-off Tales and The Half-life of Songs admits there can be downsides. “I do prefer ultra short, but longer stories have the advantage of allowing the reader to relax a bit more and settle into the fictional world. One of the big disadvantages with flash is that these slivers of fiction don’t allow the reader time to absorb ideas; you are in and out of the fictional world so quickly.”
That’s why the structure is so important and idiosyncratic: the story starts in the middle and the ending isn’t at the end. It’s an art: “One golden rule of micro fiction is write long then go short,” says Gaffney. “Create a lump of stone from which you can chip out your story sculpture.”
Although flash fiction isn’t new, there has been more interest in the genre recently. Nik Perring has a theory why. “In the digital age, shorter stories can be read between doing things, while commuting, while waiting for appointments or meetings – someone read one of mine at a set of traffic lights! They can be mobile, too – having something on your phone gives you the opportunity to read without having to commit to bringing a book.”
Gaffney also believes there’s a fit with modern life: “I think us flash fiction people are doing something a little different. It’s getting right down to the nitty-gritty.”
So there you go: flash fiction explained, in less than 500 words.
Sarah-Clare Conlon is one of the organisers of Flash Mob, the first-ever flash fiction writing competition and event in Chorlton Arts Festival’s ten-year history. Full details of how to enter the competition (deadline April 29) can be found on the website at flashmobmcr.wordpress.com, with updates on the literary salon on May 26 available via Twitter @FMWComp.