The primary definition, one might suppose, is length. I used to submit to an American website called Tuesday Shorts. If I recall aright, they stuck at 100 words. Other sites and various competitions have worked upwards of that – 150, 250, 300, 500, 1,000. A few have gone smaller.
Others have looked to the title of the form, and specifically to that ‘flash’ to provide the fundamental metaphor for the genre. A writer who lives not far from me, says that ‘flash fiction’ should end with a ‘ta-dah!!’ What interests me, as a writer who rarely goes above 12-1500 words, and who often goes below the 1,000 word limit, is whether all fiction so short has to be regarded as ‘flash’ – and therefore, when ‘ta-dah’less’, will be seen as failed flash fiction – or if there might be a wider, and long established category of short fiction that has been eclipsed, momentarily by the flash!
Rimbaud’s ‘illuminations’ might be a case in point. Still ‘lit’ by their title, these are bathed in a different light – often a gloomy shadow-filled one. Pushing the metaphors, we might also have ‘glimmer’ fictions, or fictions at the end of which the lights fail, rather than flare. Torch beam revelations or candle flame ones might make short fictions, and Rimbaud’s word could cover a multitude of lighting rigs and effects.
Early than Rimbaud though were sketches, anecdotes and tales of fewer than a thousand words. In the introduction to ‘The World’s Thousand Best Stories,’ (Hammerton c1933) through which I have been voyaging over the last few months, reference is made to fictions of 300 words or less, and among the few included are ones that predate the Common Era.
What the ‘flash’ metaphor has done has been to draw our attention to a particular type of story, but one among many, and by extension it has also raised awareness of other possible metaphors. How a story is to be ‘lit’ can vary, but how it is conceived and presented might also be understood by metaphors that have nothing to do with lighting.
George Moore, writing about the short story form in general, wrote of endings ‘in minor keys’, which begs further musical metaphors: symphonic? Drum roll? Sonata? I ended one of the stories in Talking To Owls – thinking of a running gag of Chandler Byng’s from an episode of Friends – with a cymbal roll (not a cheesy one, I hope), and I wonder how many readers noticed it!
A metaphor that occurred to me recently, when discussing flash fiction, and the idea that a ‘sharp’ revelatory ending was like ‘a knife going in’, was that you might aim for an ending like ‘a knife being withdrawn’. I was thinking of those jokes that you don’t ‘get’ until a few minutes after they’ve ended; the ‘penny dropping’ being delayed. I even tried writing one, and the vimeo-ed story ‘A Fabulous Blade’ was the result!
I submitted to the Bridport competition and was short-listed for my ‘flash’, but I don’t think it went ‘ta-dah!!’ What it might have done, was caught a glimmer of light off one of the knife blades in the story.