Literary Terms: Flash Fiction

January 27, 2016

These days, it seems like flash fiction has never been more popular. With many journals including separate submission categories for flash and still others, such as wigleaf and SmokeLong Quarterly, devoted entirely to the publication of small fictions—the short short story is (finally) getting its due. Many authors, such as Lydia Davis, Amelia Gray, Ben Loory, and Amber Sparks, have put out collections of flash fiction without explicitly labeling it as such. Flash fiction is generally considered to be a story of 1000 words or less (though there is even some debate about this), but within this category alone there are several subsets. The wonderful thing about flash fiction is that, aside from its length, it resists easy definition. There are limitless techniques that can be used in flash. So why label it at all? Well, you certainly don’t have to. But it can be fun. For example: did you know that there is something called a drabble? Sometimes putting a constraint of 1000 or 300 or even 25 words on a story is all you need to get the creative juices flowing.

flash fiction

Hint Fiction – Credit goes to Robert Swartwood for coining the term hint fiction as: “A story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex, story.” We were thrilled to get a chance to talk with Swartwood himself in this interview. Swartwood also edited the first-ever hint fiction anthology, and he explained to us what he believes makes a great piece of hint: “For me, a successful hint fiction story stands by itself. It’s not a first sentence or random sentence plucked out of a much larger work. In many ways, it has a beginning, middle, and end.” Here is a roundup of a few of our favorite hint fiction stories to read online.

Twitter Fiction – As the name suggests, twitter fiction refers to stories made up of 140 characters max that appear on the social media site, though it should be noted that these stories can often take the form of several tweets strung together. Swartwood rightly pointed out to us that the main difference between hint fiction and twitter fiction (besides the slight variance in length requirements) is that hint fiction has a title and twitter fiction doesn’t. In stories of this length, a title can make a big difference. You know that it is coming into the mainstream when Jennifer Egan publishes an entire story in The New Yorker composed, originally, as a series of tweets. You can read great articles on twitter fiction in The Atlantic and The Huffington Post.

Dribble and drabble – While these terms are not widely used, a drabble is generally acknowledged to be a story of precisely 100 words, a dribble a story of precisely 50. You will not find these definitions listed in Merriam-Webster, but still: they are pretty great.

Micro Fiction – Like flash itself, the definition of micro fiction varies somewhat depending on whom you ask, but micro fiction stories are generally capped between 250 and—more commonly—300 words. In 1996 the anthology Micro Fiction, edited by Jerome Stern, was published. The anthology was inspired by the longstanding Florida State University’s World’s Best Short Story contest, which accepted stories with a maximum of 250 words. For the sake of the anthology, Stern expanded the maximum word count to 300. NANO Fiction is a literary journal committed to publishing stories of 300 words or less.

Sudden Fiction – In 1986, long before flash fiction was a popular term, Robert Shapard and James Thomas edited an anthology of stories of 1500 words or less that they called sudden fiction. In the introduction, Robert Shapard wrote: “Highly compressed, highly charged, insidious, protean, sudden, alarming, tantalizing, these short-shorts confer form on small corners of chaos, can do in one page what a novel does in two hundred.” What was the early working title of the anthology? Blasters. In 2007, the same editors put out a collection of New Sudden Fiction, in which they acknowledged the difference between flash fiction as being a story of one or two pages and sudden fiction as being a story of up to five. Technically, then, sudden fiction actually does not qualify as a type of flash, but it is interesting to note the close relationship between the two terms.

Inspired to write a powerful but miniscule story of your own? Get out your notebooks and laptops, or login to your twitter feed—and share your original flash in the comments.

by Sadye Teiser


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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