Sean Hill: More than a Writing Exercise-the Advantages of Flash Fiction
You might be surprised (or not) to learn that more writers than you think aren't familiar with flash fiction, or microfiction, or dribbles, drabbles, vignettes, etc. etc. I once mentioned that I wrote flash fiction to a friend, and he thought at first I was talking about the superhero, The Flash. It's a style I think many writers, if they are familiar with flash fiction, relegate to little more than a writing exercise, something to challenge yourself with, but not really take seriously. After all, the popular consensus is that the novel is the default storytelling method (take a quick look around social media and see just how many writers refer to their work in progress (WIP), singular, or are asked to talk about their book). In fact, there are writers who consider short stories as nothing more than stepping stones to novels. Size matters in the literary world, though in truth, just like the innuendo I'm sure is in your head (if not, it is now) says, it isn't the size that matters but what you do with it.
The shortest fiction has advantages that longer works don't, which is what I want to argue in favour of here. If we take literary forms as determined sizes (they aren't, but we kinda think they are), then the novel and its related forms have a kind of passive power. I don't mean this negatively. They have the space in which to explore and expand various things, in various ways. The writer can go on at length if needs be. By passive, I mean that we as readers are more (not completely!) passively taking in the writer's language and ideas. But short fiction is different. It's constrained by length. That's the funny thing about novels, they don't have a limit per se, at least not an upper limit, but short fiction has defined upper and lower limits of novella and, well, no words at all. As an inherently more constrained form, writers have to get creative in very different ways. Much like budgetary constraints in filmmaking that force directors to squeeze every last penny of their resources, writers of mirofic have a hard word count in which to move around and build something, which forces them to consider structure, delivery, every phrase, every sentence, every choice of word. This is the challenge some writers see in microfiction, but it's not just that—it’s a strength.
What makes it a strength, though? I have an example: Hemingway's six-word story "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn." Firstly, it's framed as an advertisement, already making it a slightly unorthodox way of delivering a narrative. He ramps up the story between each comma. But above all else, and what I think is the real power of the shortest fiction, is the implications. It makes you think of what could possibly have happened to make the people who placed this ad place it. There's a whole story behind those six words; there's people and, we assume, tragedy. Maybe they can't bear to hold onto those shoes. Maybe they're desperate for money. Maybe it's all absolutely 100% innocent. But we'll never know, and that's the point: to make your brain fire up and buzz considering all the implications. Flash fiction has a powerfully engaging ability that's a result of its limited size, or rather, its focus.
But that's not all flash is about, and that's not all it can do! The American writer Ambrose Bierce wrote several tiny tales exploring bizarre events with terse, frank, journalistic language that leave you feeling cold (these tales are "The Difficulty in Crossing a Field", "An Unfinished Race", "Charles Ashmore's Trail", "The Spook House"). The Anglo-Irish writer Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, or just Lord Dunsany, wrote a book of invented mythology in the form of short folklore tales and legends, each one focused on a different god, called The Gods of Pegana, years before Tolkien and even Robert E. Howard. Flash fiction has the ability to not only propose intriguing implications, but laser focus on a single image or concept that might get lost or diluted in a longer work, or just doesn't really fit in anywhere.
Many people may be tempted to consider microfiction as little more than fiction for a generation of people with deteriorating attention spans, as an easy, light stream of content. I once had someone in a writing group tell me "Ah, so you write for the Twitter generation," in response to which my skin visibly crawled. I actually believe the absolute opposite: flash fiction is all about using its sparseness to engage the imagination, to meet you only halfway so you fill in the blanks, so you go the extra mile, leaving you with a lasting impression, a unique experience, and, just maybe, inspiring you.
I write a flash fiction publication called Shadows & Sorcery, published every week via Substack, where I send out 3-5 very short tales to subscribers based off text prompts from my own little generator. As of writing, I’ve done over 300 of them now, each one based off the above flash fiction philosophy of implication and hyperfocus. I aim to provide both fun bonbons of dark fantasy fiction that are easy to binge or as good quick reads, as well as spread my own inspirations and methods of inspiration around. There's also an ongoing serial novel called The Path of Poison for those of a long form fiction persuasion, but even so, I hope you drop by and enjoy some flash!
You can find it here and subscribe (for free!) at shadowsandsorcery.substack.com
Sean Hill’s flash fiction tale “Night Falls First at the Cottage” found a home in And the Dead Shall Sleep No More: Volume I. Purchase it here.
For more of Sean’s work, follow him on Twitter at @SeanCRHill.