How many words constitute flash fiction? What’s the cutoff? The number seems to vary according to publication. Up to 1000 words according to Smokelong.com and Flashfictiononline.com submissions criteria. For Vestalreview.com the cutoff is 500 words.
Flash fiction is significantly shorter than short stories, but how short can fiction go and still be recognized as a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end? Quite short, as I’ll soon show.
Exact definitions can vary by publication, but generally, complete stories of fewer than 1500, 1000, 500, or even 300 words can be classified as flash fiction. Flash fiction of fewer than 400 words is often referred to as microfiction.
G.W. Thomas, award-winning writer of short, short fiction, helps us characterize flash fiction. The genre, he says, focuses on the small idea in a larger one, not the interrelationships of parents and children, for example, but how a child might cope with the loss of his mother. This narrows the subject down to a manageable scene, an interesting event that he calls “the culmination of unwritten events.”
Thomas suggests the following strategies for would-be writers of flash fiction: 1) Characterize your protagonist in a few telling details. 2) Use a powerful image. 3) Inject mystery. 4) End with a twist.
Someone said that the best flash fiction comes back to haunt you long after you’ve read it. It’s been years since I first read Brady Udall’s “The Wig,”—all 368 words—and each time I re-read it, I feel its emotional impact and wonder at its technical mastery.
Here’s the piece in its entirety.
By Brady Udall
My eight-year-old son found a wig in the garbage Dumpster this morning. I walked into the kitchen, highly irritated that I couldn’t make a respectable knot in my green paisley tie, and there he was at the table, eating cereal and reading the funnies, the wig pulled tightly over his head like a football helmet. The wig was a dirty bush of curly blond hair, the kind you might see on a prostitute or someone who is trying to imitate Marilyn Monroe.
I asked where he got the wig and he told me, his mouth full of cereal. When I advised him that we don’t wear things we find in the garbage, he simply continued eating and reading as if he didn’t hear me.
I wanted him to take that wig off but I couldn’t ask him to do it. I forgot all about my tie and going to work. I looked out the window where mist fell slowly on the street. I paced into the living room and back, trying not to look at my son. He ignored me. I could hear him munching cereal and rustling paper.
There was a picture, or a memory, real or imagined, that I couldn’t get out of my mind: Last fall, before the accident, my wife was sitting in the chair where now my son always sits. She was reading the paper to see how the Blackhawks did the night before, and her sleep-mussed hair was only slightly longer and darker than the hair of my son’s wig.
I wondered if my son had a similar picture in his head, or if he had a picture at all. I watched him and he finally looked up at me but his face was blank. He went back to his reading. I walked around the table, picked him up, and held him against my chest. I pressed my nose into that wig and it smelled not like the clean shampoo scent I might have been hoping for, but like old lettuce. I suppose it didn’t matter at that point. My son put his smooth arms around my neck and for maybe a few seconds we were together again, the three of us.
Now let’s see how Udall applies Thomas’s strategies.
Characterize your protagonist in a few telling details. When we meet the first-person narrator in the opening, he’s irritated because he can’t make “a respectable knot in his tie.” Appearances and his job would seem to be important to this man.
Use a powerful image to engage the reader and provide a hook into the story. This image appears in the beginning paragraph and packs a wallop: a little boy in a blond wig fished out of a dumpster is munching on his morning cereal and rustling the morning newspaper as he reads the comics.
Inject mystery. Make your reader wait to find out what’s going on in order to keep her reading, says Thomas. Here the mystery occurs in the middle paragraph: the narrator wants his son to take off the wig but can’t ask him to do it? (Why not?) He forgets all about his tie and going to work, and begins to pace. (What’s going on?) The mystery begins to unravel in the penultimate paragraph with the words, “before the accident,” when the connection between the boy’s behavior and the dead mother is revealed.
End with a twist. This resolution punched me hard in the heart: the narrator picks up his son and holds him in his arms, “and for maybe a few seconds we were together again, the three of us [italics mine].
And there you have a complete story—and what a beautiful story!—with a beginning, middle and end in under 400 words.
With editors of ezines looking for shorter works more easily read on a computer screen, maybe we should give them what they want. Now is a great time for writers to turn their talents to flash fiction.