Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Flash (in the pan) Fiction

Flash fiction is not one of my favorite forms of writing. In fact, you could say that I kind of hate it. I dislike it so much that I've had to restart this post four times for being much too harsh. It's not really the fault of the flash fiction, either; it's those people that write flash fiction. No, not you that have written a short story or three that happen to fall into the "flash fiction" range, but those people that just love "flash fiction" because it's so unique and forces you to do so much with so little and all of that other pretentious hogwash.

And it is. Pretentious. And hogwash.

It's especially pretentious since most (almost all) of what those people write when they're doing all of their flash fiction crap is crap. C. R. A. P.

Here's something I read recently that kind of illustrates the point. It was someone talking about the "grand tradition" of flash fiction and how it goes back decades and decades. Um... no... the term "flash fiction" didn't appear until the early 90's, so it, as a thing, certainly wasn't a thing before that. Which is not to say that short stories under 1000 words didn't exist before then, because they did, and they, at various points, had various other names. But, sometimes, when things are given a "name," they become a "thing," and "flash fiction" has only been a "thing" for two decades (which is, technically, decades, but it's hardly "decades"), and it's only been a "real thing" for, maybe, the last decade or so.

But that's kind of the thing, they are JUST short stories. In fact, on the scale of literary items, so to speak, "flash fiction" doesn't even exist. You have:
short stories -- less than 7500 words
novelettes -- 7500 - 17,500 words
novellas -- 17,500 - 40,000 words
novels -- 40,000+ words
Yeah, I did research on this stuff for my creative class, and that's really the generally accepted breakdown. Something close to that, anyway. No one even mentions flash fiction in terms of publication. Generally speaking, if a magazine (or whoever) wants something that would fall into the "flash fiction" category, they ask for SHORT STORIES at around the 1000 word length.

Yeah, I know a lot of you are probably thinking I'm getting all worked up over nothing, and I can see that, but let me give you a similar example. I thought about speech as a major when I was in college, so I took the requisite intro to speech class. WOW! Now there was a class that was trying too hard. You think psychology tries hard to be recognized as a science, try taking a speech class. One of the things we learned early on is that there are specific "scientific" names for the distances people stand away from you when you talk to them. (and I am completely making these names up, because I don't remember (nor do I care to remember) what the actual names are) So, if someone is standing within 2" of you, he is in your "C" zone. If he is 2-4" away, he is in your "R" zone. If he's 4-8" away, he's in your "A" zone, and, if he's 8-12" away, he's in your "P" zone. Yes, because all of that, also, is CRAP. While it's true that how close to you someone stands is important, because it affects different people in different ways, there are also cultural and personal distinctions about  this stuff, so it's NOT THE SAME for everyone, so giving these arbitrary distances names was just a way to sound all sciency about it, and it didn't mean anything.

And that's how I feel about "flash fiction."

Oh, and I decided not major in speech, because, after that class, I figured it was just going to be a waste of time. Speech, as a major, is like trying to dress a pig in a dress and pass it off as your prom date.


So... flash fiction just tries too hard. It does. It's trying hard to be something more than just a short story, and, the truth is, it is just a short story. Except, mostly, they're very poorly written short stories.
And here's why:

1. Frequently, because the author is trying to stuff, say, a 5000 word story into an artificial 1000 word format, he has to rely on lots of exposition (or Telling) to impart enough of the story to make it make sense, so what we end up with is 500-700 words of the author telling us the background and only a few hundred words of the actual action of the story (the Showing). It's very unsatisfying, and I'm always left feeling like the author should have just written another few thousand words so that we could actually experience more of the story as story rather than as "historical" prologue.

Mostly, people should just write the story that needs to be told without worrying about how long or short it is. Shorter, contrary to popular belief, is not better, as I'm continually telling the kids in my creative writing class, who always want to get away with shorter, and I have to tell them to go back and expand expand expand. Show me the action; don't just tell me what happened. Flash fiction writers need to take this lesson to heart. If half of your flash fiction is Telling, you're writing in the wrong format. Period.

2. I suppose because the format is so short, authors of flash fiction often feel like they need to work in some kind of twist ending. Something unexpected to give us a shock at the end. These things sort of give flash fiction a joke-like quality, like they need some kind of punch line. The twists often feel forced and unnatural, too, which makes them bad jokes. I've not read a single piece of flash fiction with a twist at the end that was worth reading. Especially when the twist is accomplished through some gruesome act for no other reason than to be shocking.

I truly hope this fad of flash fiction passes relatively quickly, because it's reducing story telling to the same level that free verse reduced poetry, which is garbage. None of that is to say there aren't good examples out there, but it's not something just anyone can do with any skill. Learn how to tell a story and use as many words as you need to tell that story. If it happens to fall under 1000 words, great, but, if not, don't force it. It's pretty much the same as cutting off your toes to get your foot into a smaller shoe.


  1. Quit beating around the bush and tell us how you REALLY feel!
    I don't think I could write a story that short. Not that I can write a really long one either. (That I got my third book over 80,000 words still stuns me.)

  2. My hat goes off to writers period because I think it is an incredibly difficult job.

  3. I don't know how something with 20 years of history behind it as a writerly meme will pass quickly, but we can all hope I suppose. I like to think of it as poetry for people who don't like poetry. I say that mostly for the length though, my metaphor falls apart if you look at it any other way. Probably, I never actually looked at it any other way. And to be honest, I just started calling it 'poetry for people who don't like poetry' just now. Um, I just want this paragraph to be over now.

    That's better. I did submit one of my shortest short stories (1700 words I think) and the editor wrote me back and told me that flash fiction is a tough sell for him. I suppose that meant I was behind the 8-ball as soon as he saw my word count. Since when did 1700 words become flash fiction? Crap indeed.

    It's really hard to tell anything with a beginning, middle, and end, in so few words though. Much of the flash fiction I've read tends to be more like vignettes into peoples lives (Hey - that can be more like poetry too! Then it can work on TWO levels).

    Ok, I better quit typing.

  4. Oh, I forgot to mention. I know the divisions of form you listed are what's used by the Hugo committee for their awards, and I've held that to be true since day one, but I've been stunned to learn the number of people (people I respect) who wave their hand at those divisions and dismiss them as rubbish. I mean, I've been really stunned.

    I'm sure there is a story there somewhere, someone wanted the cutoff to be 8500 words for novelette instead of 7500 and they've campaigned relentlessly for decades to undermine the credibility of the divisions... I don't think I'll ever try to find out any more about it. Just seems odd to me that people would reject such helpful labels.

    I'm gone for real now.

  5. If you want to read good flash fiction you should read "We Are Now" by Me, Neil Vogler, and Sean Craven. Neil's pieces especially are great and some of mine aren't so bad if I may say so myself.

  6. Hee hee... Can I just say it's... amusing to see you get so worked up over something that ... well your post was longer than most flash fiction pieces! Ha ha!

    Ah, personally, I love flash fiction. But that's because I love instant gratification and I have trouble with commitment (despite that fact, I've been married 10 years this April). Flash fiction can also be a great exercise for people who need to practice brevity.

    So... it has its uses, let's say. But it's not going to threaten your status as a writer of short or long fiction... so why take a stick and poke at it too much? If it has merits that are worth keeping, it will stay around. If not, it will... be gone in a flash (comparatively speaking).

  7. I've never been a huge fan of flash fiction. I don't hate it, but I don't love it, either. Maybe it's what you said, it's prone to too much 'tell' rather than 'show.' I laughed out loud at the twist ending thing... isn't that the number one rule of flash fiction? Everyone turns into M. Night Shyamalan.

  8. I tend to agree with you. I've never enjoyed flash fiction. When people post flash fiction on their blogs and I try to read it my brain revolts. But actually, my experience with flash fiction has been the different from your number 1. I find that people writing flash fiction often have absolutely no time for telling so they focus solely on showing but that doesn't even work. Most flash fiction I read has no "story" to it, it's just vague images strung together in a way that doesn't tell me or show me anything and I can never manage to care. And when there's absolutely no telling, half the time I can't even tell what's going on.

    I like Rusty's insight of flash fiction being poetry for people who don't like (or perhaps can't write) poetry. That makes a lot of sense on some levels.

  9. Alex: You should have seen the stuff I deleted. heh

    JKIR,F: It is, but there's no real need to make it more difficult by taking a 5000 word story and trying to cram it into 1000 words.

    Rusty: 1700 isn't flash fiction. The theoretical cap for flash is 1000 words, although that can be bent up to 1200.

    People get bent out of shape about the numbers because they're mostly arbitrary. Just a few decades ago, you needed 80,000 words to be a novel. Publishers have pushed and pushed that number down for two reasons:
    1. They have a belief that people don't like long works.
    2. That may be tied into the fact that they don't want people to like long works, because they cost more to print, but people won't pay more for a 100,000 word book just because it's longer than a 50,000 words book.

    PT: It's on my list.

    Elisabeth: It is! In fact, a lot of my posts are longer than flash fiction. Maybe most of them.
    It's really not the flash fiction that gets me worked up; it's the people that try to make more of it than it is.

    And I didn't say this in my post, but it is a useful -teaching- technique, but I think that's it's best use.

    ABftS: I know! I almost mentioned him, but I always bring him up when I talk about twist endings, so I gave him a break this time. It's too bad that most flash is more like "Lady in the Water" rather than "Sixth Sense."

    Sarah: I've seen a lot of those, too. Kind of a stream of consciousness without any consciousness. You get to the end and realize it wasn't about anything.

  10. I think if done right, flash fiction can be very, very powerful. But I do agree- forced is forced no matter how you try to say it.

  11. It sounds like you've read some truly bad flash fiction. I like it as a format myself, though before last year I'd not written lots of it.

    I think it's a good way, as a reader, to quickly formulate an opinion about a new writer. If they can't engage you and offer you something interesting in 1000 words, then they're not going to do any better with 5,000, 50,000, or 100,000.

    But hey. It isn't for everybody!

  12. I almost didn't read this post because I immediately knew I was going to feel offended. But then I thought it might be an interesting experience to be among the people offended by one of your posts.

    And yes, I am offended. I don't think I've done flash fiction in ages, though, so I doubt you've seen any of mine and therefore could not have possibly been directing this personally in any way. So the experience has been more amused-offended than anything else.

    To be fair, I think you made several good points. Flash fiction is certainly not the highest form of writing, by any means, and yes it frequently comes off as pretentious and too much Telling with kitschy twist-endings. I often like the twist endings because they make me laugh.

    When I have tried flash fiction, it's mostly been as part of a competition, and it's fun that way because there are often specific constraints to work with and it's fun to see the variety of stories that people come up with given the same constraints.

    And then there's what Rusty said, above: "I like to think of it as poetry for people who don't like poetry. I say that mostly for the length though, my metaphor falls apart if you look at it any other way."

    Then he got all self-conscious about it, apparently, but that rang true for me. Flash fiction is often not a fully-complete story, and it frequently is to me a lot like a prose-based poem. Oftentimes it's nothing more than an exercise to use words in the best possible way to convey a mere snapshot of a story.

    I have friends in grad school who are obsessed with something called the one-sentence story. Those are crazy-fun to write (Look up Hemmingway's one-sentence story.) but I'm not going to dash one off and be all "Now I am a real writer, by jove!"

    And maybe it's cultural ADD that drives people to write shorter stories based on no-body wanting to commit to longer stories. I don't know, but I think that may be a factor.

    This comment is getting way out of hand with length and I've lost what my point was, except that I think flash fiction has its benefits and its uses.

  13. I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon. I remember learning about it in school ten years ago and it's only seem to have gotten more popular. And I'm sure people will keep posting their efforts, for good or ill.

  14. I've written all of three flash fiction pieces, I think, with one soon to be published in an anthology, so it is by no means my thing. However, I do chair a flash fiction contest for one of my writer's groups, and I find we got some really quality pieces, ones where, without providing back story, they're able to convey an assumed back story just in the way they wrote it. I love to see it when it is well written like that. When you can glean the rest of the story just from the little you've been told. And ours is a 100 word flash piece, so heavy constraints.

    Anyway, I don't go out of my way to read flash fiction outside of the contest (or when involved in an online challenge, for instance), so maybe I just haven't been exposed to the terrible pieces you and some of your commenters seem to have been. I'm glad for that! I've seen some that weren't great, but I've also seen some really well done pieces.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  15. OW! Like Callie, I'm offended. Truly offended. I guess it's cause I cut my fiction teeth writing pretentious hogwash C.R.A.P. that I feel that way.

  16. Rebecca: Oh, yeah, I agree with that entirely, but being done right does not include crappy twist endings for the sake of the twist ending.

    Neil: Most of what I see posted on blogs is pretty bad, and the few collections I've looked at have been just as bad. I think writers often think of it as a good place to start because it's short, but I deal with kids every week struggling with the idea of writing 1000 words, and what I have to keep telling them is expand expand expand. But that's middle schoolers. Unfortunately, that's the same thing I want to say to most of these people posting their flash on their blogs.

    Callie: LOL I love that: "...I thought it might be an interesting experience to be among the people offended by one of [my] posts."

    I'm pretty sure I haven't read any of your flash fiction, and I'm okay with it as a contest form, because it's a convenient length, but that's not about it being "flash fiction," that's about it being a convenient length to read a lot of entries quickly.

    And, yes, culturally, we have been shifting to shorter and shorter stories. The arbitrary length of what makes something a novel is half what it was a few decades ago, but I think that actually has more to do with publishers wanting shorter works to increase their profits rather than any real desire on the part of the reading public for shorter works.

    Jeanne: Yeah, it has been gaining in popularity. I think the only real use for it (as a "thing") is as a teaching tool in classes.

    Shannon: As I said up above, I think it's a great/fine format for contests. It's certainly better than novel contests in terms of reading the entries. At any rate, there are occasionally good pieces, but most of what I see is not.
    But it's not really the pieces themselves that bother me, it's the attitude behind a lot of "flash fiction" writers.

    Cathy: But, see, I've never seen you going on about flash fiction at all or talking about how it's the superior writing form or any of that which is what really bothers me.

  17. Dude! You really need to learn how to say what you think. It isn't healthy to hold back like that.

  18. Susan: Wait, are you saying I should have gone with my first draft?

  19. You are right, there is some bad flash fiction around. There are some bad novels around. There are people who think they can write when they have a much longer road to go. But the best flash fiction is something different from a short story, yes, it is close to poetry because each word is more important and it hits home faster. It's like the best jokes of a stand up comic, quick & punchy and because of it's speed and what your mind has to do to catch up and take all the levels in a well-written flash it's a very effective form of writing.

    Everyone's opinion has something of truth in it and you're right about the downsides of flash fiction and it's loathsome quality when done wrong but I don't like the all or nothing way of thinking. There's truth on the other side too. Listen to 'Peekaboo' by Dan Powell from the anthology Jawbreakers, read David Gaffney or Tania Hershman's flash fiction collections and then see if you still feel the same.

  20. By the way, yes I have gone on about how good it is but I read and write novels, short stories and flash fiction and poetry and they all have different pleasures to offer.

  21. I tend to think it's a literary fallacy, the whole "showing rather than telling." Because most writers are atrocious at showing. Showing tends to be emphasized because it represents the idea that writing exercises the brain. It forces people to use their imagination.

    Well, for some people, telling does that a lot better than showing. Telling exercises for them more cerebral elements of storytelling, forcing the writer to know rather than copy what every other writer does. A story is only as good as how well a writer knows it. If most of that story is simply a writer telling the same story as everyone else, using the same images and descriptions as everyone else, is it really so worthwhile to show rather than tell? At what point is it simply a matter of expectation and what everyone says writing should be rather than what a writer can do?

    So this is another position of yours that I absolutely don't agree with. Last year I participated in two separate writing exercises where most of the participants absolutely agreed with you. One of them was a 500 word micro fiction (the very idea of which probably gives you conniptions!) where most of the writers were as convinced of your rules as you are. And they had no idea what they were doing and most of them were absolutely fine with that, even though they couldn't tell your kind of story even in that length.

    Part of what I'm saying is, no matter the length, the strength of a storyteller is exposed pretty quickly, no matter how they write. Sometimes a good story starts out very badly, because the force of showing rather than telling (otherwise known as popular fiction that you'll find at your local supermarket) starts to take over. The quality of the writing no longer matters. The reader gets swept up in the writer's vivid representation of a pretty basic story that doesn't make the reader ultimately have to think too much. (Although detective stories famously get around this by engaging the reader to guess the identity of the killer.)

  22. Part of what amuses me so much about this issue of length is the big stink so many people have put up about Peter Jackson expanding one short book into three long movies. Isn't that the dream of you guys? Isn't it all about showing rather than telling, and making it as long as possible? Isn't that your argument?

    A story is a story is a story. It is whatever it needs to be. I do write a lot of flash fiction, just so you know. It forces me to know exactly what I am trying to say. I'm a writer who tends to have a lot of ideas. Some of them I want to commit to a longer length. Some of them can be expressed in relatively few words. There's no difference in how I write them.

    The other exercise I participated in last year had much more general length demands. Yet I quickly discovered that most of the participants expected longer rather than shorter. After reading your diatribe, I can begin to see it really must be systematic, emblematic of a bias. They weren't looking for writing talent, they were looking for confirmation of their beliefs. They saw something that was short, and they automatically assumed that the writer simply hadn't given their story the time and development it deserved. They didn't even stop to consider that whatever they just read might actually be all it needed to be.

    Variations on a single story is a favorite trope of mine. It's a long tradition in storytelling. It's also just one example of how there will always be more than one way to tell the same story. One way is brevity. (Which is the soul of wit, according to some twit.)

    I'm sure you're beginning to love me, by the way.

    I guess your perception of poetry also helps define the difference between our literary mentalities. You think that poetry has been ruined the fewer rules are used to govern it. I say that as a culture we've simply stopped trying to emphasize poetry, and as a result we've all started to assume that whatever exists now must be of inferior quality. (I also say that most of our poetry now exists in pop music form, and your precious rules still exist there.)

    What I'm trying to say this time is...relax. If you like certain kinds of writing, that's fine. But you have no grounds to condemn the rest of it. If that's how you approach it in the classroom, just know that you're actively stifling what you apparently champion.

  23. alisonwells: Again, I do think there is good flash fiction out there, just like there are good short stories out there. My issue is not with the actual work, it's with those people that hold flash up as the "superior" art form while being the producers of some of the worst short fiction I've ever read by trying to force it into a flash mold.
    And, yes, there are some horrible novels out there. I read a lot of them this past year.

    Tony: Again, you've missed my point. A story needs to be as long as it needs to be, which I said. You do your story a disservice, though, when you're trying to force it down under 1000 words when it needs to be 2000 or 5000 or, even, 1500. To put this in perspective:
    Star Wars opens with that opening scroll that Tells us the background and, then, moves into shoeing us the action. That bit of Telling is very short in comparison to the whole. Let's say Lucas had wanted to cram that whole movie into a 10 minute short piece, so the opening scroll would need to be lengthened to get all the stuff that happened to Luke in there, so it ends up being 5 or 6 minutes long of just being told what happened, then it ends with a shortened attack on the Death Star. Except with a twist ending.
    That's how I feel when I read -most- flash fiction.

    I've never read any flash fiction by you, so I wasn't talking about anything you've written. Maybe you don't do that stuff.

    In working with the kids in my creative writing class, they -haven't- given their stories the time and development they need to be giving them. They're still learning to write that stuff. So, in one case, a student wrote "the goblin and the king battled and the goblin won." That's just not enough. Show me that action. Make me care that the king lost.

    As for poetry, just as a note:
    I agree that poetry has become pop music.
    Also, most modern poetry is actually just prose written in a funny way. Calling it poetry because you wrote it in verse format doesn't make it poetry.

    Anyway, short fiction is fine, and it's great if that's what you like to write, but, in the same vein, because you like to write short fiction does not make it the superior writing format, and that's what I'm tired of hearing from flash writers. I mean, you don't see novella writers going on about how novellas are the superior form of writing.

  24. The whole joke ending thing is so true, and points to the overall gimmicky nature of flash fiction. I think this kind of writing should be done in classrooms as a writing exercise, and not so much as a published form. They are rarely that fun to read.
    I liked the part of about the arbitrary classifications in school subjects- it's pretty much about creating filler for a textbook, rather than teaching anyone anything :P

  25. Winopants: It's amazing how much of the arbitrary things in life we try to give a greater meaning to.