Do it in a Flash: an Essay on the History and Definition of Flash Fiction, by Sandra Arnold

Reading Time: 11 minutes

“How would I define flash fiction?” mused a poet friend early in 2016 as we discussed New Zealand’s forthcoming National Flash Fiction Day. “Prose poetry with a narrative arc.”

I said I was sceptical that a story could be conveyed well enough in so few words, preferring the broad sweep of the novel. He, on the other hand, a practitioner of the prose poem, enthused about the flash form and recommended I read Flash Frontier, an online journal established in New Zealand in 2011 by Michelle Elvy. The journal’s 250 word gems captivated me enough to want to investigate further. In the process I discovered a whole world of flash fiction complete with supporters who claim it is the future of literature, critics who say it is the death of literature, and those who dismiss it as a passing fad of the internet generation.

Calum Kerr, founding director of the UK National Flash Fiction Day, defines flash as existing between the traditional short story and the prose poem, “taking the narrative from one and the brevity from the other.” (read our interview with Calum here). The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “fiction that is extremely brief, typically only a few hundred words or fewer in its entirety which relies on ambiguity to create engagement in the readers”. It is also defined by “startling subtext and a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts” Thaisa Frank says in ‘Illuminated illusions’ (2017). Ethel Rohan and Nuala Ni Chonchúir, international judges of flash, add, “Everything whittles down to its most essential, nuanced and illuminative” (Flash Frontier, February, 2014). My favourite definition, however, comes from Leanne Radojkovich in her November 26 interview with Lynn Freeman on Radio New Zealand. Flash is, she says, “built with absences.”

The internet and social media have created opportunities for flash to become accessible, but although its current popularity is new, the form is not.  It can be found in oral traditions, parables, the myths in the Iliad and Odyssey, Aesop’s fables, the fables of the Middle East, and fairytales. Petronius wrote short-short stories in ancient Rome. Marie de France wrote them in medieval times. The form became established in the nineteenth century through such writers as Balzac and De Maupassant in France, Chekov in Russia and Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce and Kate Chopin in the USA. Major practitioners of the twentieth century were Franz Kafka in Prague, O. Henry in the USA, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar in Argentina, Robert Walser in Switzerland,  Dino Buzzati and Italo Calvino in Italy, Isak Dinesen in Denmark and Yasumari Kawabata in Japan who was famous for his ‘palm-of-the-hand’ stories. By the 1920s the form was referred to as the short-short story and was associated with Cosmopolitan magazine. Ernest Hemingway, known best for his novels of heroism and adventure such as For whom the Bell Tolls, wrote 18 pieces of very short fiction that were included in his short story collection In Our Time. The six-word flash, ‘For sale, baby shoes never worn’ is attributed to him, allegedly written as a dare to write a complete story in as few words as possible. In the 1930s, short-shorts were collected in anthologies such as The American short story. Somerset Maugham was a practitioner with his Cosmopolitans: Very short stories. Others have included Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. In 1947, the editors of Writers try short shorts, Mildred I. Reid and Delmar E. Bordeaux, traced the origin of the modern short-short to Collier’s Weekly, an American popular magazine that in 1925 claimed to have invented it.

In the introduction to his 1983 anthology, Sudden Fiction, Robert Shapard described the difficulty the editorial team had in agreeing on a title. Because almost no literary criticism existed to properly name the form, he asked the writers to do so, stating: “the form can only be established when its proper name is chosen. We create our world through language, through naming.” Writer Robert Kelly used the term sudden fiction because the stories “are all suddenly  –  just there”. Thus, the name of the anthology came into being. James Thomas titled his 1992 anthology, Flash Fiction: Seventy two very short stories. He stated that the editors’ definition of flash fiction was a story that would fit on two facing pages of a literary magazine. By giving this kind of story a name, Thomas defined the form. Four years later, Jerome Stern published an anthology of even shorter stories which he called Micro Fiction. With the rise of the internet, new names have appeared including compressed fiction, skinny-fiction, nano-fiction, micro-narrative, micro-story, postcard-fiction, hint-fiction, drabbles and dribbles, smoke-longs (because a story can be read in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette), pocket-sized, minute-long, little short stories, or palm-sized stories. However, the term short-short story was commonly used until 2000 after which flash became the accepted usage.

The Double Room, whose title was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s prose poem Le Chambre Double, was established in 2007 as an art and literature journal which also hosts discussions about flash fiction and prose poetry. In 2008 Peter Blair and Ashley Chantler founded what has become one of the world’s leading magazines, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. In the decade since, numerous international magazines publishing flash have appeared, ranging from the literary to the popular. New Zealand began celebrating National Flash Fiction Day in 2012, publishing the winners of its international competition in Flash Frontier. Since 2012 National Flash Fiction Day has also taken place in Britain and publishes an annual international anthology. In 2017 the first flash fiction festival was held in Bath in the UK. In New Zealand the first major anthology of flash fiction and prose poetry, Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories, will be published by Canterbury University Press in 2018. Excellence in flash fiction writing is supported by the USA-based Pushcart Prize, established in 1976, and The Best Small Fictions, established in 2015. Both presses publish an annual anthology of the best short prose and poetry nominated by small presses from around the world.

Criticism of flash focuses on the premise that it is a poor relation of the short story and novel; that it is a sop for those who are too busy to read longer works; that it is instant gratification for the attention-challenged. In his 2008 essay, ‘Notes towards the definition of the short-short’, Ashley Chantler suggested the form was “perfect for the emailing, texting, abbreviating, ADD generation”, a view he has since modified.  The proliferation of online publications has caused Rohan and Ni Chonchúir to express concern about the risk of oversaturation with some online magazines publishing work “which seems uninspiring, incomplete or gratuitous and doesn’t help the plight of the often beleaguered form” (Flash Frontier, February, 2014. Read our interview with Ni Chonchúir here).  Jacob Silverman, writing in Politico (2012), goes further, “the problem with flash fiction is that much of it isn’t very good … most flash fiction is too brief and self-satisfied to strike more than one note … it’s literary tokenism, stories to be consumed between commercial breaks”. While this is an accurate description of some flash writing,  the best of it is as satisfying as the best prose poetry. Flash “should be read slowly, like a poem”, says Grace Paley (Flash Fiction Forward: 80 very short stories, 2006). O’Connor makes the point that in reading flash it is necessary to “decelerate and loiter, to stall in the heart of the story and wonder about the greater, bigger things that are being alluded to” (‘Fireworks, drowsy swallows and a box clicked shut’, 2017).

Because of the brevity of flash, each word must carry its own weight in meaning and allusion. When this is done well, say Rohan and Ni Chonchúir, flash “delivers a punch that sets off sparks in our heads. A series of intense moments while advancing plot and revealing character” (Flash Frontier, February, 2014). Hemingway insisted that economy of language was the way to achieve maximum effect in prose. Referring to his ‘iceberg theory’, he said: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water” (Death in the Afternoon, 1932).

The challenge to achieve maximum effect with the minimum of words has resulted in many accomplished writers turning to the form and some innovative work has emerged, for example, in the stream-of-consciousness piece ‘Salvador late or early’ by Mexican writer Sandra Cisneros (Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, 1991):

Salvador with eyes the colour of caterpillar, Salvador of the crooked hair and crooked teeth, Salvador whose name the teacher cannot remember, is a boy who is no one’s friend, runs along somewhere in that vague direction where homes are the colour of bad weather, lives behind a raw wood doorway, shakes the sleepy brothers awake, ties their shoes, combs their hair with water, feeds them milk and cornflakes from a tin cup in the dim dark of the morning.

Background information is implied about the way Salvador and his siblings live. The teacher cannot remember his name so we deduce he does not draw attention to himself; he is responsible for his siblings because his mother is occupied with yet another baby; his body is too small to contain all his feelings. The images are sparse but vivid and when the story ends the reader continues it by wondering how life will turn out for Salvador.

In 2006 Robert Olen Butler published 62 flash pieces in his collection Severance in which each story describes the remaining 90 seconds of consciousness of decapitated human heads. The narrative opens in the middle of Ta Chin’s story and the reader soon realises she is on her way to her execution for something which was not her fault.  In a story of startling images, most compelling of all is the image of the pain of her bound feet as she begs to have them cut off before her head:

I see Buddha in heaven sitting on his lotus but it is my naked foot the golden lotus that he sits upon and hands push me down my neck made bare and I cry please, before my head cut off my feet.

Flash often illuminates a moment or series of moments. It can also, as Paul Theroux, the American travel writer and novelist said, contain a whole novel. An example of this can be seen in ‘Before she was a Memory’ by Emma Bolden which appeared in the 2015 anthology The Best Small Fictions. The author begins at the flashpoint:

 I didn’t recognise her without her head. The policeman took me to the morgue. He told me to look. I looked. There was an expanse of steel, smooth and inscrutable as any lake, her body arcing towards her neck.

We do not know why or how the woman’s daughter was killed or if the daughter’s final moments were as the mother wishes to imagine. Without sentiment or overt description the bleakness of the mother’s grief is conveyed through images of ‘cold air’ and ‘empty space’, and her readiness to leave the morgue.

Frankie McMillan’s collection My Mother and the Hungarians and Other Small Fictions (Canterbury University Press, 2016) illustrates Chantler’s assertion in his essay in Smokelong Quarterly that “being silent can be productive: into the silences the reader speaks” (2016). McMillan also exemplifies Theroux’s point that “a short-short can contain a novel” in the way it draws together linked stories about the lives of Hungarian immigrants to New Zealand in the 1950s. In these stories the ‘silences’ create the past before the men fled to New Zealand  and the recurring nightmares about what they left behind.

My mother kept boarders like other people kept chooks or stray dogs. She liked the refugees best with their suitcases, their canvas shoes tied up with string, their boyish faces and willingness to share a bed so that if one woke in the night crying no shoot, no shoot, the other could turn and blanket their sorrows with their old European ways. (‘The House on Holloway Street’).

While flash may utilise the semantics, suggestion, rhythm and elliptical leaps of prose poetry, it needs a narrative arc to place it within the realm of fiction. It also needs to “ignite the senses quickly,” says Hooks, “retaining the same sonic qualities of poetry while remembering the dictates and essentials of the short story” (‘Protean miniatures: The adaptability and sustainability of flash fiction’, 2017). This is exemplified in ‘This is how they drown’ by Eileen Merriman (Bath Flash Fiction, 2015) A narrative arc is drawn in the introduction to Connie and her cousin Luke and their carefree adolescent behaviour. The images of the younger brother, Ferg, floating in a benign sea, under a bright sky suggest a relaxed holiday mood before the narrative takes an unexpected turn:

Ferg is floating, the sky like cut glass and the sea soft and yielding. The sun beats on his upturned face, and the waves beat on the sand, but they sound very far away. That’s when he realises he’s drifting very fast, like he’s in a –

The momentum builds as Connie and Luke realise the gravity of Ferg’s situation and Luke tries unsuccessfully to save him. Their drowning is shown through imagery before ‘the sea rushes in’ and the story ends with Luke’s last thoughts.

Flash is a protean form and sometimes the boundaries between prose poetry and flash are blurred. Patrick Pink’s creative nonfiction flash ‘Taking my boyfriend to his Tangihanga’ is an example.

River mist dulls a morning sun like uncarved bone.

Green hills are cloaked in feathered winter white.

Abandoned outbuildings are ghost places with watercolour-smudged edges.

The piece continues with layers of metaphor until the last prosaic line provides the punch in the gut: ‘Jase’s mum says she thinks his gumboots will fit me fine’ (Flash Frontier, 2016).

Like flash, prose poetry is an old form. Its origins can be traced to the ancient Hebrew scholars. It appears in medieval France and was used in the King James Bible. In Japan, haibun, a Japanese form of prose poem that combines haiku and prose originated with Matsua Baso in the 17th Century. In the west, it appeared in the early 19th century in France and Germany as a reaction against traditional uses of line in poetry. At the time French poetry was dominated by the alexandrine, a 12-syllable iambic line adapted from French Heroic verse, as for example, Shelley’s To a Skylark. Charles Baudelaire is considered to be the first poet to depart from formal verse and experiment with a new style of short-form writing called prose poetry. In the  introduction to his collection of prose poetry Paris Spleen (1869)  he wrote “who has not in bouts of ambition dreamt this miracle, a poetic muse, musical without rhythm, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch of consciousness?”

By the end of the 19th century British Decadent movement poets such as Oscar Wilde had adopted the form. In France writers who continued to write prose poetry into the twentieth century included Gertrude Stein and Francis Ponge. Outside France, Hans Christian Anderson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Turgenev and Kafka were major practitioners. Other proponents of the form include Amy Lowell, Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges. Prose poetry gained resurgence in the early 1950s, 60s and 70s with American poets such as Alan Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Charles Simic who explored its possibilities for interior monologue, stream of consciousness and philosophical reflection. It was not without its critics. Modernist poet T.S. Elliot was one who disparaged the form. In 1990, after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of prose poems The World Doesn’t End, Simic wrote that his award was criticised on the grounds that prose poems were not poetry. Charles Baudelaire’s prose poems with their compressed descriptions and psychological subtleties are considered to be a significant precursor to the kind of ‘slice-of-life’ narratives found in contemporary flash fiction.

Before the 1980s flash fiction made the occasional appearance in literary journals and remained largely unnoticed. The internet and social media have increased awareness of the form and there are now hundreds of journals, competitions, collections and anthologies that include or focus exclusively on flash. It cannot be predicted whether flash will eventually become “fossilised by literary criticism” as Thaisa Frank fears (‘Illuminated Illusions’, 2017) or whether its protean nature will ensure it evolves. What does appear certain is that the short-short, having morphed into contemporary flash, has left behind its position of marginalised obscurity to take root in the literary landscape.


Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer with a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. She is the author of two novels and a book on parental bereavement.  Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. Her flash fiction appears in numerous journals including the anthologies, Sleep is a Beautiful Colour (National Flash Fiction Day, UK, 2017),  Fresh Ink (Cloud Ink Press, NZ, 2017),  Peacock Journal Anthology, 2018, and is forthcoming in Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). Her work was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize and the 2018 Best Small Fictions. Her third novel, Ash will be published by Mākaro Press in 2019. You can find more about Sandra by visiting her website here. 

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