When I first discovered flash fiction, I encountered writers with too many rules. They were so passionate about the efficiency of their craft that they scoffed at writers of longer fiction. Too many adverbs and adjectives, they claimed. But what I did learn from writing flash fiction was to use words more efficiently.
As an author, I don’t enjoy trends but I try to learn from them regardless. I have written both longer fiction, including novels, and pithy stories under 500 words. I enjoy both processes and I see the beauty in both condensing a story into bite-sizes and also offering literary fiction that is sipped like a robust wine. I understand that too much description anchors a story in boredom but the absence of description leaves a story floating in space with nowhere to land. Obviously, writing any fiction poses challenges to the writer. Personally, I love the challenges because those challenges help in crafting work that will stick in readers’ minds.
For a flash fiction author, the description of autumn would like a Haiku poem. Whereas, for an author of longer fiction, autumn includes the crunch of maple leaves underfoot, a stiff breeze snapping branches, and the need for a woolen hat and scarf worn by the characters. The author immerses the reader into the details of the character’s home, her friendships, her aspirations, and deepest fears, not something that can be achieved in less than one-thousand words.
The challenge of describing autumn in one-thousand words or less includes the viewpoint of one character with the trajectory of a single storyline and no room for tangents. The character’s mind has no room to wander and keeping the character in this moment rather than sending the reader backwards in time or forward into the future serves the story best. The author also faces the challenge of choosing bold and vibrant words to describe the setting for the character as well as, action verbs to propel the story forward quickly.
With flash fiction there is no room for parallel stories, flashbacks, a character’s mind drifting and the inciting incident must occur in the first sentence propelling the story forward. Flash fiction is the hundred-yard dash sprint as opposed to the marathon of a novel or the running of a mile for short literary fiction. And this is not suggesting that flash fiction can’t be included in literary fiction, but it’s less literary to me because I think of literary fiction as an indulgence like taking a soak in a hot bath. Flash fiction is something to read on a coffee break. Sure, it’s clever but it’s less likely to become a literary classic. I write flash fiction for fun but when I have more to say and when I feel like waxing poetics, I commit to the longer form.
Ideally, authors immerse themselves in both practices because there is much to learn from both formats. I know when I am writing non-fiction articles, I prefer a longer word count but I have learned how to be more efficient and craft stronger sentences when the editor gives me a shorter word count. With flash fiction, the writer has to get everything right when hooking the reader. The story still requires characterization, a plot, a plot twist and a satisfying ending. Like a three-minute pop song, contours, structure, and tone play crucial roles. All stories long or short require an arc that includes a beginning, middle, and end in which the character undergoes transformation or at least a shift in perspective. Otherwise, I’m going to yawn through the story if I don’t put it down after the first two paragraphs.
So, which form do you prefer as a fiction writer? Do you prefer the challenge of telling a story in fewer words or do you like to dive in to the long form and take your readers on a journey? Or perhaps, you prefer both formats like I do. As writers our job is to craft stories that hook and keep the readers on board. Our adventure is with words and images conveyed by the words. And ultimately if we can get readers to connect their minds to their hearts, we’ve done our job no matter the word count.
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