What is flash fiction? by Dave Lordan, with 13 prompts for creative writing students

Flash Fiction Seminar with Dave Lordan this Saturday in the Big Smoke Writing Factory

Flash fiction is a relatively new and on-trend fictional form with many antecedents and relations.

Because of its relative (and qualified) newness it is still a genre without settled rules of structure (apart from brevity), style, or content. From the writer’s point of view it’s a form where we can afford to experiment and try out many different approaches, without committing the time we would to a novel or even short story. For this alone I recommend it becomes part of your writing practice, especially if you are beginning writer unsure of style, voice, genre etc. Its up-to-the-minuteness is also contained its adaptability to and collaborative potential with internet based or distributed forms like digital animation and short film.

Flash is also called sudden fiction, and in China, where it has been around for a 1000 years it is called smoke fiction – read during a work break in the time it takes to have a cigarette. Flash gives us some clue about what we have come to expect from the form anyway, a moment of sudden, brief, intense illumination revealing something which up until then had remained hidden and unknown.  The element of revelation is crucial.

Contexts and Antecedents

Thinking about the present contexts of Flash and about its possible ancestors helps us to develop ideas about the possibilities of what we can try and achieve in our own flash fiction.

Today flash is obviously most deeply connected to distribution and publishing possibilities opened up by the internet in an era when traditional publishing is in retreat at the same time as hundreds of millions of people all over the globe are entering the pool of potential writers through the spread of literacy and higher education. But the form also thrives due to the scattered, short-span reading practice which is a consequence of reading shifting from newspapers and books to hyperspace and the mobile device. When we write flash we are aiming to catch people’s attention for a short – but hopefully intense – reading period. We are not only competing with other literary forms but also with all other media content. People want to take in as much as possible of what is on offer and so are often reluctant to commit to the long read. Flash means very little scrolling. It can be read in the time it takes to walk from the office desk to the toilet. But it should aim to burn in the memory for at least a while after. The point is to leave an impression. So what is in the ‘flash’ should be somehow different in style and in content to what can be find in any other media or genre. This is obviously the difficult part, and it means that, as in any other art-form or genre, one will have to work hard to develop a unique and stand-out style and perspective to win any kind of readership. Flash is not a short cut to being a writer. It may be easy to write 300 or 500 words of text but it is a completely different matter to write something memorably distinct from all the millions of other ‘flashers’ that are having a go.

Flash is also connected to the fragmentation and perhaps ‘speeding-up’ of life relative to the past. We move around a lot, we change lovers and even genders, we try different jobs and different courses, we start and stop and start and stop. It’s hard to feel that our lives are one large narrative, underpinned by a political or religious faith which provides the connections and explanations and overall purposes of what is happening to us as individuals and as a society. Classic novels, dramas, much poetry, many films try to provide us with, and/or work from an assumption of such overarching belief systems widely shared with the audience. But today we are much less likely to be speaking to ‘a mass of believers’ when we write. It’s an era of doubt and the multiplication and indeed hybridisation of belief systems. We live our lives seemingly as a series of disconnected episodes, punctuated by catastrophic ruptures like war, recession, deaths, break-ups and breakdowns.

Novels, plays, short stories, all have time and space for a series of introductory events and establishing scenes leading to a climax which reveals the essential truth or message about her characters that the author is trying to impart.

In flash we don’t have time for intros, lead-ups, digressions etc. Flash fiction should always take place at a moment of rupture and critical turn i.e it should be all climax!

Flash is written out of, and back into, this maelstrom of doubt and fragmentation. Remember, however that people are programmed to search for belief and connections and that many of the flash antecedents – fables, parables, aphoristic sequences – are to do with illustrating belief systems with illuminating examples and with joining the dots for people.

Can you write a modern parable? It’s not fashionable to believe or proselytize but the best writers are often the most unfashinable ones. Maighread Medbh’s recent Savage Solitude is an excellent example of a book of concentrated briefs, questioning, doubting, believing…

You can also write – like Kafka did – parables of disbelief, dread, meaninglessness, despair.

Flashing in the past – Some recommended lines of enquiry

Parable – gospels, philosophic texts, hagiographic episodes and miracles, visions, visitations
Zen anecdotes
Aesop’s Fable
Aphorisms – Lichtenberg, Nietschze
Blake’s Memorable Fancies and Proverbs of Hell
The fairy/folk tale – Calvino’s Italian folk tales (also Invisible Cities)
The Arabian Nights
The medieval urban folk tale – Boccaccio’s Decameron.
You might think of Emily Dickinson as a Flash Poet
The prose poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud are also root texts, I think
Kafka, Donald Barthelme.

Contemporary – Lydia Davis, Dan Rhodes, Tania Hershman

Non-literary short texts, parodying and imitexting

As flash writers we should be interested and inspired by all kinds of non-literary short texts we find around us. Parodying or imitating these can be a very fruitful way of exploring our flash voices. My recent First Book of Frags was largely a book of imitexts.

CVs and job descriptions
news ‘briefs’ and ‘round-ups’
prescriptions and medical narratives/shorthands of all sorts
suicide notes and funeral orations
stand-up comedy anecdotes
recipes and DIY instructions
seance messages and other mystical briefs
coded messages
encylopedia entries

The flash collection could loosely based on any of these non-literary forms. 100 orations for my Uncle Jack, for example.

Do’s and don’ts of Flash Fiction

Don’t just give a synopsis of a novel or a short story. This is the most common foible I have come across.

Be precise and prudent. Use broad strokes and suggestiveness, along with nuggets of precision. If you want to read a contemporary irish writer who is a master of this try Desmond Hogan.

Do try to be intense and revelatory without being cliched. We avoid cliche by seeing with our own eyes, and speaking our own words. By concrete precision also.

Like all art, flash fictions can only justify their existences by there uniqueness. Every flash fiction should have sentences and events in it which have never been described before. Cliche proof everything you write.

Do write and rewrite and try to shrink the story down to its barest elements

Do try and build up a scrapbook of thoughts, anecdotes, dreams, eavesdrops, small local stories, any kind of brief text which might have a bigger meaning or connection

Be yourself. Be concrete. Draw on your own experiences, perspectives, motivations. Be as different as you can within the limits of the form, or bust the limits of the form altogether. Try Boris Belony’s Transmorphosis and Other Short Story for an example of flash that manages to be really different and really entertaining at the same time.

13 Flashercises:

write up to 500 words on one of the following, or do your own thing

1. Write a brief oration for someone who you wish was dead

2. Write a spoof etymology for the irish placename of your choice (schull, cummer’s graveyard, gaggin…the choice is endless

3. Write a recipe for disaster

4. You are in a restaurant and have eaten a terrible meal, had a bad day in the office, and drank six expressos. Write a ragingly insane note to the chef.

5. Write a suicide note for a dog or a cat detailing the last-straw-event which caused its decision

6. Describe the last time you met someone you loved before they emigrated, died, went missing, changed sex etc

7. You are an alcoholic and you have been off the drink for 45 years. Describe the overwhelming liberation and guilt of your first break-out pint.

8. You are a burglar and you break into a mansion in Killiney. When you switch on the light you see something completely unexpected. What is it?

9. You are a junkie stumbling along Talbot Street in Dublin when you have a religious vision. Describe it.

10. You are a spy from another universe listening in to a fragmented, interrupted telephone conversation between a Hezbollah operative and the head of the CIA. Script it.

11. You are an assistant archeologist on a routine pre-development dig near KIlcoole on country wicklow when you uncover a pair of wooden pipes which appear to be thousands of years old. You decide, while no-one is looking, to put them to your lips and see what happens. What happens?

12. Write a description of a lost renaissance painting you have just found in your aunties attic.

13: You are the oracle of Dalkey. Stoners come from all over south dublin to offer you bags of home grown weed in return for a prophecy. Give us one – write it in the madly meandering symbolism of one who has been skunking continously for two decades.