Introduction: This was co-written by myself and Tim Waggoner; it's my expansion of an outline written by him and is used with permission from him.
Sometimes shorter is better when it comes to fiction, particularly fiction that appears on the Web. That's where "flash fiction" comes in.
What it is ...
In a nutshell, flash fiction stories are very, very short stories that contain all the elements you'd find in a "normal" short story: characterization, conflict and resolution.
Writer S. Joan Popek defines flash fiction as "a literary punch to the gut. This shortest of the short forms is a flash of a story that, like a flash bulb, vividly illuminates one moment in time. It's generally defined as a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end that uses the elements of traditional short stories, often with a twist ending -- in 100 words or less."
Author William Peden calls a story in this style "a moment rendered in its immediacy" and Russell Banks calls flash fiction little stories that "leave the reader anxious in a particularly satisfying way."
The precise word count required for a story to be considered a piece of flash fiction is often in the eye of the beholding editor. Some editors consider anything under 1000 words to be flashfic, others seek works under 500 words or 300 words. And some, like Ms. Popek, don't think it's the real thing unless it clocks in at 100 words, which is less than half a typed, double-spaced manuscript page.
What it isn't ...
Flash fiction is not merely an idea for a story; ideas are the bricks you build a story with. Flash Fiction is not a slice-of-life vignette. Flash Fiction is a complete story, not a sketch. Change must occur in either the protagonist, the antagonist or the reader's mind for a story to qualify as flash fiction.
Flash fiction elements
The setting of a flash fiction story is often established in the title and the first sentence, and it is rendered in just a few, vivid words.
Flash fiction stories have only a few characters, usually just two but sometimes three. The characters don't have to be people; they can be animals or even inanimate objects.
The story's plot will unfold in a momentary flash, key episode, or climactic event. The story typically starts in medias res, and sometimes the traditional beginning, middle, and end you find in a longer short story can be skillfully replaced by an insightful surprise.
If you want to write a flash fiction story ....
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Sound doable? This is a very tricky, demanding form to pull off well. If you want to try this genre on for size but don't know where to begin, try writing a short, all-dialog story about things such as:
Try to think of a twist you can put on the ideas. Readers will make certain assumptions about a familiar setting and the way characters speak. Try to turn those assumptions upside down to surprise the reader.
m_turner suggests that people who enjoy speculative fiction should seek out All the Myriad Ways, a short story collection by Larry Niven. It contains a couple of short-shorts that he thinks are good examples of what to strive for in flash fiction.
"Flashes of Brilliance" by S. Joan Popek
Tim Waggoner's lecture on Flash Fiction
Allen, Roberta. Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes. Story Press, 1997.
Moss, Steve, ed. The World's Shortest Stories. Running Press, 1998.
Stern, Jerome, ed. Microfiction. Norton, 1996.
Thomas, James, et al., eds. Flash Fiction. Norton, 1992.