Iridescent Insects: What is Flash Fiction?

Iridescent Insects: What is Flash Fiction?
“I usually compare the novel to a mammal, be it wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish; the microstory to an insect (iridescent in the best cases).” Photo by Adrián Afonso.

“I usually compare the novel to a mammal, be it wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish; the microstory to an insect (iridescent in the best cases).” Photo by Adrián Afonso.

In the second part of her column on flash fiction, writer Tania Hershman asks what counts as flash. Is it just word count, or something more indefinable?

So, seeing as this is supposed to be a guide, I thought we’d better address the question, What is flash fiction (also known as microfiction, nanofiction, short shorts, hint fiction, twitter fiction, drabble, dribble etc..)? Well, I don’t know. Really. I write flash fiction, I read flash fiction. But I can’t say definitively what it is. Short? Yes. Fictional? Yes, mostly, especially given that there’s a quite new field called flash non-fiction. Flashy? I don’t think so.

What about magazines that publish flash fiction? Fractured West, which defines itself as a “new print magazine for flash fiction” says: “MAX 500 words, but the shorter the better – stories over 500 words will be deleted unread”. No messing there. The University of Chester’s magazine, Flash, goes further into brevity: “Flashes must be no more than 360 words (including the title).” Duotrope, the veritable online database of writers’ markets, lists flash fiction as “under 1000 words”. The Boston Literary Magazine only publishes flash fiction under 250 words. The Bridport Prize’s flash fiction contest agrees with this. A drabble is exactly 100 words; a dribble exactly fifty.

So, is it just about word length? Not exactly. Here is a lovely quote in an article on by Robert Shaphard, who edited those wonderful Sudden Fiction anthologies I talked about in my first blog post:

“I love hearing some people talk about flash. One of my favorites is Luisa Valenzuela, who says, “I usually compare the novel to a mammal, be it wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish; the microstory to an insect (iridescent in the best cases).”

So, flash fiction is an iridescent insect. OK.

"More Sawn-Off Tales", David Gaffney's new collection

“More Sawn-Off Tales”, David Gaffney’s new collection

David Gaffney, whose fourth collection of tiny stories More Sawn-Off Tales is out this week from Salt Publishing, said this in the Guardian on last year’s National Flash Fiction Day:

“The story could live much more cheaply than I’d realised, with little deterioration in lifestyle. Sure, it had been severely downsized, but it was all the better for it. There was more room to think, more space for the original idea to resonate, fewer unnecessary words to wade through. The story had become a nimble, nippy little thing that could turn on a sixpence and accelerate quickly away. And any tendencies to go all purple were almost completely eliminated. Adjectives were anthrax.”

Ben Myers, also in the Guardian, back in 2007, wrote: “Flash fiction places the onus on the reader to provide their own input. A successful flash fiction story is a seed planted in the reader’s imagination, which, once there, should grow and flourish.”

Ok, flash is an iridescent insect, a seed, which shuns adjectives and turns on a sixpence. Nice.

But – can a poem also be flash fiction? Ah, I’m glad you asked. When I first started writing flash fiction, 7 years or so ago, I was very protective. Fiction was fiction, poetry was poetry, never the twain etc… Now I am blurry. Everything is blurry.  Where does flash fiction grab the wheel and turn off the road, leaving the prose poem carrying straight on? Frankly, my answer at this point is, Who the hell knows? And part two of my answer: Who the hell cares?

I met a wonderful Belgian writer of very short pieces at the Cork International Short Story Festival a few years ago; the festival organizer had invited him after hearing him read at a poetry festival. “Ah,” I said, “do you write poetry or fiction?” “Well,” he said cleverly, “If I’m invited to a poetry festival, I call it poetry. And if it’s a fiction festival, I call it fiction.” The same stuff, the same tiny word-bundles. Linguistic things. I suspect this is why guidelines for literary magazines and contests only define number of words. Because other than that, this wondrous thing we call flash fiction is fairly undefinable. Go and read some and let me know what you think. Go on. Off you go.

(At 660 words, not including the title, or this waffly bit, is this blog post also flash fiction?)

Read the rest of Tania’s column here.

Tania Hershman is the author of two story collections: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books, 2012), a collection of 56 very short fictions, and The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008; commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers) . Tania's short stories and poetry are published or forthcoming in, among others, Five Dials, Stinging Fly, Tears in the Fence, PANK magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, the London Magazine, and New Scientist, and on BBC Radio. She is writer-in-residence in Bristol University's Science Faculty and editor of The Short Review, the online journal spotlighting short story collections and their authors. Tania teaches regularly for the Arvon Foundation and gives workshops on short stories, flash fiction and science-inspired fiction. Check out her website here.


  1. For me, flash fiction is the form of fiction where the reader is persuaded, by the author, to use their imagination in an equal or greater proportion to the author’s efforts, in order for the story to be successful. The author can not merely ‘tell’ a story but must co-create it with tandem with the reader. The shorter the flash, the harder each has to work. The author is required to make each word work more, the reader has less to work with.
    If there is a boundary between flash fiction and a short fiction, I would argue that it is when, in editing, decisions on individual words affect the material shape and direction of the story rather than simply improve the prose. However, the lack of agreement on an exact word length strengthens the appeal of flash fiction writing rather than weakening it. A story of 50 words that is entirely satisfying is not just a case of removing the least effective 200 words from a 250 word piece. Different lengths have their own dynamic and that’s why I’m drawn to writing flash.

    • Tania Hershman Tania Hershman says:

      Pete, I really like that point about the shorter the flash the more the reader has to work, I think I may purloin that and use that in my workshops! So true about different word lengths having their own dynamic too, I am so drawn to the drabble, those 100 words can contain multitudes. Thanks for your wise words!

  2. Tim Love says:

    One little point is that if you submit a short piece as Flash, the magazine is likely to print it amongst prose, whereas if you sent it to the poetry editor, it will appear amongst poetry (and may seem more radical). This might affect how people respond to your piece.

    Like Tania, I think the dividing lines are blurry when I write, but in answer to “Who the hell cares?” I’d reply that some editors do, so it might be worth checking before deciding whether to add line-breaks to your Flash before sending it off. On I’ve collected a few tips.

    • Tania Hershman Tania Hershman says:

      Tim, exactly! This is why I don’t define my own writings anymore, because so much depends on which editor accepts what, so I will leave the definitions to them. Of course, I’m talking about prose poems here, the line breaks will lead a reader/editor in a certain, less ambigious direction. Thanks for your comment!

  3. I write differently when I write flash fiction from short stories or longer fiction. For me, the difference is in approach. I think my flash fiction is generally more free flowing, more stream of consciousness than my other writing. I can sit down to write a flash fiction with no idea at all. I just sit and write (type) and see what ends up on the page. If I like what I see then I might shape it a little more, but sometimes I just leave it as is. It’s the most immediately creatively satisfying form of writing I do.

  4. Marcus Speh says:

    Great survey, Tania, proving the undefinability of the shortest form. It is interesting to me that readers don’t seem to care as much as writers of publishers about the exact length of anything. It’s short. Not long. The real trouble for scholars begins when a writer mixes very short and not so short pieces as I’ve done in my recent collection “Thank You for Your Sperm” (MadHat Press): 70 of the 80 stories are very short but the others aren’t. And then I’ve thrown in a long interview, too, do even further confuse the taxonomists! The truth is that the book represents my best work of three years during which I moved into longer stories. I don’t think that this departure from “flash purity” destroys the result. As a reader, I’m less concerned with length and more with content and with narrative arc which you can (and should) have in pieces of any length. I just had a very enjoyable conversation about flash with writer and editor Christopher Allen who also hosts the Flash Mob 2013 — if you’re a flash writer do submit (deadline is June 10).

  5. Susan O'Neill says:

    I’ve edited Vestal Review (flash fiction magazine, web and print) throughout its 13 year lifespan. We limit stories to 500 words or less–publisher Mark Budman’s idea, because it made sense to have a limit. I’m constantly amazed at what good flash writers can do in that “space”–iridescent insects, indeed!

    I’ve learned a lot on the job, much that has transferred to my own writing, which is seldom short enough to qualify for our zine. I’ve learned to listen to what my story tells me it needs for length. A 3000-word piece once bullied me into carving it to 1000, where it’s quite happy (Hey, it said, I’m a good idea, but I’m not worth all this ink; you’ll love me better when I’m sleeker. And it was right.). I’ve learned that, with a few deft elides, a poem can become stellar flash–if it wants to.

    And I’ve learned some stories want to be novels.

    Above all, I’ve learned the power of editing my stuff–flash, conventional stories (whatever that means), novels, essays, blog posts. It has to do with what I call Respecting the Bones: plenty of good nutrition to keep the prose healthy and lively, but no fat.

    I guess that comes down to iridescence without armor.

    Susan O’Neill

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