Worth a Thousand Words

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Not that kind of flash fiction. Source.

I can’t say that I’ve ever written much in the way of flash fiction. Pretty much everything I’ve written since I took the training wheels off back in high school has been at least a few thousand words long, some of it much longer, and all of it occupying more space in the world than it had any right to.

One of these days I’ll tell you all about the 20,ooo words I wrote that ripped off Outlaw Star in probably the most transparent way imaginable.

But I’ve gotten involved in a bit of a project recently—a venture one might say, an experiment—and it has me thinking very clearly about what it takes to write flash fiction, because that’s going to be my primary contribution.

The standard definition for flash fiction is in the length restriction: 1,000 words or less.

Helpful for classification. Not so helpful for actually writing the damned stuff. So over the past week and a half, I’ve been trying to wring out what flash fiction is supposed to be. What is its strength? What does it do that nothing else does?

Novels let you draw readers in, get them invested, give them ample reason to love or hate characters as needed, and then you offer a tremendous payoff at the end. Novels like to date for a while, move in together to test the waters, get engaged, get married, land a steady job, and have 2.5 kids.

Short stories, though. Short stories are serial monogamy. You can see a different short story every night, if you so desire, and you don’t even have to worry about them learning about each other. Short stories are magic tricks: a pledge, a turn, and a prestige.

But what of flash fiction? What’s that? Speed dating? A torrid makeout among the stacks? The blind date with an escape plan? Damned if I know. Should flash fiction evoke, and do nothing more? Should it be a core sample of a larger story, drawing in all the strata of a conventional tale at once, in a single, concentrated dose? How relevant is plot to flash fic? Or characterization? How about setting? What about clarity? You’ve only got a budget of 1,000 words, something’s gotta go.

The only thing I’ve managed to figure out so far (having wrangled two pieces of flash fic in about as many weeks) is that, for the first time in my entire life, the Aristotelian unities have become useful.

I’ve wavered back and forth on whether I give a damn about Aristotle. In school, his ideas are presented a lot like gospel for the aspiring tragedian. “Follow these rules, or you’re fucked.” Except you’re really not. Plenty of shit doesn’t take place at one time, at one place, with one throughline of action. Tragic flaws are useful in criticism, but rarely, I have found, are they useful in actually writing. It took a lot of disentangling my writerly instincts from the dogma of the Literati for me to figure all that out. Still, Aristotle wrote some sensible stuff. The aspects of tragedy, for instance—story, character, spectacle, dialogue, etc. The aspects have their critical uses, but also writerly ones. Then again, being the doggedly stubborn asshole I am, I figure that if so many people think this Aristotle douchebag was on to something, maybe they’ve just been breathing the same air for too long.

Introduce flash fic, and suddenly the unities make sense. You’ve got 1,000 words, ticking down like a time bomb. You sure as hell better make sure that you stick by one action, in one place, and you better not skip time or you’re gonna burn any narrative momentum you’ve built up. Because, so far as I can tell, momentum is what you need. That’s the currency of flash fiction. Which is not to say that you have to write flash fic about nothing but car chases and sick guitar solos. Flash fic just has to keep moving, in a way that short stories and novels don’t.

In that respect, flash fic is the shark of the literary world—if it stops moving, it dies. But if it gets up speed, it can hit you hard and fast.

Sometimes, it takes a limb as a party favor.

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