Why Flash Fiction?

Odds are good you have never heard of flash fiction.  So, what is it?  More important, how can focusing on a relatively new genre of creative writing help young writers?

First, flash fiction is a genre of short fiction. Sometimes called short-short, very short, or micro-fiction, the key is brevity.  Most agree that flash fiction should be no longer than one thousand words, with micro-fiction often being limited to just a couple hundred, or even a few dozen, words.

In a sense, flash fiction isn’t new at all; the term is relatively new, coined in the nineties.   Ancient writers wrote very short stories, and twentieth century writers of very short fiction include Hemingway, O. Henry, H.P Lovecraft, Anton Chekov, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury.

Even so, the advent of the internet and social networking has spurred the growth and popularity of the genre.  Due to its brevity, flash fiction is uniquely suited to our data-driven world, and that isn’t a bad thing.  The benefit for creative writing students is hard to overstate.  Flash fiction employs all the story-telling elements of longer works, but does so in a compressed form. This compression is where we find the utility for fledgling writers.

Critiquing the work of others and receiving criticism of your own are equally important parts of learning to write fiction well.  They are two sides of a single coin, each being a different approach to gaining objectivity — learning the skill of turning off your emotional connection to your work in order to evaluate the effectiveness of each element of craft.

Because a piece of flash fiction is much shorter than traditional short stories, critiquing flash fiction is greatly simplified.

Nota Bene: “Simple” is not necessarily synonymous with “easy”. As used here, it is an antonym of “complex”.

Consider the difference between trying to grasp the interplay of a writers use of voice and characterization in a two-page piece of fiction, or in a work five times as long.  Simply due to length, the discreet elements of craft are closer together in flash fiction; because they are packaged as they are, acquiring the skill to see and feel the connections is simplified.

This simplification doesn’t make writing flash fiction easy.  Crafting quality flash fiction can be a greater challenge than writing in a longer form; yet the same benefit that attends learning to critique flash fiction can aid the learning process when it comes to writing, too.

Just as with formal poetry, form attains its value when it is understood and put to good use. One of the best uses of form occurs when we accept that it forces us out of a subjective perspective. We begin to appreciate the fact that, by continually nudging us into an objective frame of mind, form can serve as a guide to improving the elements of our craft.

In this regard, form complements the giving and receiving of criticism to further reinforce the habit of objective evaluation.  Writers develop the ability to shift at will between a subjective and an objective relationship to a given piece of writing.  It is different application of the same skill one acquires after prolonged study of ancient languages: an intuitive grasp of what works, and why.

This improved understanding of and facility with language is one reason students used to study Greek or Latin (and why they should still). Moreover, learning to write fiction in a disciplined and intentional manner greatly improves our basic skill of communicating via the written word, no matter the subject addressed or form required.

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