Flash Fiction/Sudden Fiction and the American Short Story
There are many names for the type of writing known best as flash fiction or sudden fiction. It goes by the names of short-short
stories, postcard, minute, furious, fast, quick, skinny, and micro fiction. In France such works are called nouvelles. In
China this type of writing has several interesting names: little short story, pocket-size story, minute-long story, palm-sized
story, and the smoke-long story. To avoid any confusion, the literary type being discussed will hereafter be referred to
as flash fiction.
As elusive as the name itself, an even more difficult feat is defining flash fiction. A broad definition is a story of
100-1000 words. Flash fiction can be any subject, any genre, and ranges from a single sentence to 2000 words in its extremes.
Flash fiction is characterized by length but contains all the traditional literary elements, including character, plot, and
setting. Flash fiction is not a new type of writing. Flash fiction dates back as far as 600BC.
Despite the ancient past, there are many more recent authors of flash fiction as well. Edgar Allen Poe wrote short stories
that would be considered flash fiction. Jorge Luis Borges, a major fiction writer, is a prime example of a present day flash
fiction writer. A few other flash fiction authors include Bernard Cooper, Elizabeth Bishop, Russell Edson, John Updike, Joyce
Carol Oates, and Raymond Carver. Today, popular writers like Stephen King use flash fiction to tell a captivating story in
a relatively short space.
Even though flash fiction began over 2500 years ago, it is growing in popularity quickly at present time. This rapid
growth in popularity may be attributed to the current lifestyle and culture of the times. Shorter stories go along with our
increasingly short attention spans, or our fast paced life style, reflecting the out-of-breathness of modern life. The reasoning
might be much more simple, such as the increased printing costs, or it might be more philosophical. The popularity may be
due to the realization that truth comes only in flashes.
In Oliver's Evolution by John Updike, Updike develops the life story of Oliver in about two short pages. The story is
intricate and compact. Oliver is the son of two parents with unfortunate circumstances. They drink too much and have marital
problems and so end up neglecting Oliver. Despite his poor upbringing and accident proneness, Oliver grows up to be the strong
husband and father his father could never be. The story is written concisely and intricately to unfold the entire life story
of Oliver in just two standalone pages.
Similarly, Wolf's Head Lake, by Joyce Carol Oates is less than two pages long, but comprises a full story. A narrator
tells the story of a man and a woman who kidnap and kill children. The story is beautifully descriptive and unique. The
narrator describes weather in detail and alternates between the first and second person. Few stories use the second person,
but the narrator succeeds in putting the reader in the position of the child being abducted.
Ernest Hemingway wrote a complete story in just six words: "For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn." The story illustrates
how brevity can cause a flash fiction piece to be more provocative than some long stories. The story is thought provoking
and revolutionary because of its extremely short length.
A short horror story with an unknown author is as follows: The last man on earth sat in his room. There was a knock at
the door. This story again proves that a strong emotion can be evoked immediately and a very short story can leave a very
Influence on the Short Story:
Flash fiction has been present in literature for as long as literature has existed, but flash fiction continues to shape
the short story in new and innovative ways. Flash fiction forces authors to grab the attention of the reader quickly, make
every word count, and make a lasting impression in a very limited space. Flash fiction reflects the society of today. Society
is fast paced, based on instant gratification, and thrives on conciseness. Commercials get shorter because people want the
greatest amount of information in the shortest amount of time, why should literature be any different?
Flash fiction opens the door for entirely new styles and techniques. Some flash fiction stories use the rare but intriguing
second person. The conciseness and intricacy of flash fiction gives readers plot, character, setting, and often unusual twists
in a very short space. It might seem counterintuitive, but writing flash fiction can be more difficult than writing a longer
short story. Shorter stories have less room for error and less allowance for superfluous information. The author must choose
each word carefully and ensure that the story flows seamlessly from beginning to end even more strictly than a writer of a
longer short story.
Flash fiction changes the modes in which people can read an entire story. Flash fiction is often featured in magazines
where longer stories would be too space consuming. The internet is another popular source for flash fiction. Flash fiction
is more reader friendly for the screen than something that requires endless scrolling or clicking on multiple pages. E-zines
with flash fiction such as http://www.vestalreview.net/, http://www.flashquake.org/, and http://consideration.org/flash are
becoming increasingly popular on the internet, adding to the popularity of flash fiction.
Flash fiction writing will continue to push the limits of short story authors. Flash fiction will provide readers with
even more provocative reading material. Flash fiction will continue to dazzle, baffle, scare, teach, and amuse readers faster
than they can watch the evening news. True to society today, writing will continue to push the limits of the imagination
and give readers the instant gratification they desire from many aspects of their lives.
Connection to our Class:
In American Short Story, we read many genres of short stories varying in length. None of the storied covered in class
strictly adhere to the guidelines for flash fiction, but many have similar characteristics. Edgar Allen Poe himself wrote
stories on the border of being flash fiction such as The Tell-Tale Heart. The Tell-Tale Heart begins with intricate description,
quickly creates suspense, and culminates dramatically in a few pages. Similarly, the two Mark Twain stories and the Kate
Chopin story covered in class are almost short enough to be considered flash fiction. The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras
County uses dialect and a few short descriptions of Smiley and his betting endeavors to amuse the reader. Letter from the
Recording Angel uses the unique style much like a legal document to satirize society and criticize selfish human requests
disguised as prayer. Desiree’s Baby is also a satire crafted concisely in order to show how quickly prejudice can
contaminate otherwise healthy lives. Although none of the stories covered in American Short Story qualify as flash fiction,
the literary elements of shorter than average stories are present in several of the stories.
Oates, Joyce Carol. I Am No One You Know. 1st ed. New York: The Ontario Review Inc., 2004.
Updike, John. Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
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