Flash Fiction Techniques: Part 1

September 19, 2014


“It needs to be longer” used to be a common story critique. However, these days, our editors will sometimes comment that a submission might work better as flash. We’ve said this about experimental stories with a repetitive form, about submissions in which there is simply one interesting, tiny kernel that is enough to carry a story, and about shorter stories that could use some whittling. I’m sure, in the future, we’ll make the same comments about entirely different styles of fiction, too. But maybe, if we may be so bold, we should first answer the question: what makes a flash story succeed?

Flash fiction is being embraced by popular authors from Dave Eggers to Lydia Davis, as well as by esteemed literary publications from Tin House to NANO Fiction. But what is flash fiction, exactly? Other than its length of one thousand words or fewer, how can we characterize the genre?

A better question might be: do we even want to try? It’s impossible to make generalizations about flash fiction and the way it works because, aside from its length, there is really no other description that can even be generally applied to the genre. Statements by authors about flash often contradict each other. In his New York Times essay, Grant Faulkner writes: “Flash communicates via caesuras and crevices. There is no asking more, no premise of comprehensiveness, because flash fiction is a form that privileges excision over agglomeration, adhering more than any other narrative form to Hemingway’s famous iceberg dictum: only show the top 10 percent of your story, and leave the other 90 percent below water to be conjured.” Certainly, there are some pieces of flash that take the iceberg approach to the extreme. However, there are other flash stories that feel complete in themselves; they tell an entire story, and the reader doesn’t feel compelled to fill in the white space, to piece together the larger narrative that the piece implies. In his own essay about flash, Dave Eggers recalls Lydia Davis telling him: “when she begins writing, she’s seeking to answer a question, and if it only takes one paragraph to answer that question, then it seems unnecessary to continue on and on for 8000 words.” For some writers, short shorts are whole, complete worlds. They are answers to questions, not hints at a larger story. For every writer, it seems, flash is an entirely different creature.

In an interview with The Believer, Lydia Davis says: “There is some acceptance of the terms flash fiction, sudden fiction, etc. But I think people may still be expecting a kind of miniature short story when they begin reading a piece of flash fiction, rather than the less usual offering that it might be—meditation, logic game, extended wordplay, diatribe—for which there is no good general name.”

So why even attempt to describe the way that flash fiction works? Because, fortunately, more and more people want to write it. What better way to learn than by looking at the techniques others have used?

In the next installment of this essay, I’ll discuss five techniques used in some of my favorite flash stories. It will by no means be an all-inclusive list, but rather a brief examination of how some writers concoct incredible stories in one thousand words or less.

by Sadye Teiser


  • marcnash

    September 19, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    You may cover this in your final part of the essay, but for me flash offers a myriad of non-conventional narrative forms. You simply don’t have enough words to waste on an opening or a description of character or setting. This puts a premium on language and much flash fiction is accordingly lyrical. But it’s really the opportunities for narrative experimentation. Stories without characters. Stories told in 100 single word sentences. Anti-lipos. One of the techniques I’ve used is to take a central image and treat it as a gemstone and for each paragraph to turn that gemstone so the light is reflected in a different way through its facets. In this way you can actually explore an image or a theme from all its vantage points and associations rather than leave lacuna and ellipses because of any word limit. Look forward to reading your second part of the essay.

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