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flash fiction also micro-fiction

noun [uncountable]

a style of literature in which stories are extremely short and often consist of less than 300 words

'A good piece of flash fiction, for me, is one in which I, as reader, am not just complicit, but necessary. I am needed to add something important – to fill in the spaces left in the weave of words.'

Bridport Prize 8th March 2013

'We have also seen how micro-fiction can help someone understand a very complex piece of text as they are forced to extract the big ideas and then synthesise the most important points into just 10 words or fewer.'

BBC News 30th May 2013

'For sale, baby shoes, never worn.'

Just six words, two commas and a full stop. In literary circles however, widely regarded as a small and perfectly formed work of fiction whose interpretation has fascinated experts for years. Is this a sad story (an infant death), or maybe a humorous one (baby's feet were much bigger than anticipated)?

Of course it's the brevity of this piece which is precisely what makes it so fascinating, the fact that it inspires readers to ponder and fill in the gaps, each person having their own particular idea of the back story. Interpretations and literary value aside however, this six-word tale (often attributed to Ernest Hemingway but actual author uncertain) is often cited as an extreme example of a literary genre now known as flash fiction.

whatever their length, pieces of flash fiction contain all the classic story elements we'd expect – protagonists, conflicts, obstacles or complications, and their resolution

Flash fiction is a style of writing which involves producing very short pieces of fictional literature. This is quite different to the concept of a short story, which is usually several pages long and can notch up thousands of words. Works of flash fiction, by contrast, can comprise as little as a single page or 250 words.

The term flash fiction has a number of lexical variants, including micro-fiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction, short short and short short story. One explanation for this range of alternatives might be the fact that there's no widely accepted definition of the genre in terms of length – one user of the term may interpret it as up to a 1000 words, another as under 300. Sometimes however, distinctions between these variant terms are made, so that for instance 1000 words can be considered the cut-off point between flash fiction and the slightly longer sudden fiction. The term micro-fiction is often reserved for stories which are less than 300 words long. And believe it or not, there are even further subdivisions, with the word drabble sometimes used for stories of exactly 100 words and dribble for 50 word pieces!

Whatever their length, pieces of flash fiction contain all the classic story elements we'd expect – protagonists, conflicts, obstacles or complications, and their resolution. Unlike conventional short stories however, their limited word length means that some of these elements have to remain unwritten and are merely hinted at or implied in the storyline.

Background – flash fiction

Of course the idea of very short pieces of fiction is nothing new, its origins dating as far back as the fables of Ancient Greece. However it wasn't until the 1930s that the concept of very short story writing became established, with such fictional works described as short short stories. This was the usual term of reference for the genre until the expression flash fiction emerged in the early 1990s.

The expression flash fiction represents yet another perspective within a growing vocabulary of literary genres. Another kind of fiction that has emerged in recent years is fan fiction, stories written by fans of a book/TV series rather than the original author. As well as the emergence of expressions such as foodoir (a biography with a culinary focus), the word lit (short for literature) is now used productively in a range of compounds where the first component word refers to either the target or the subject of the literature, e.g. chick/lad lit (novels written for women/young men), gran lit (novels written for older women), sick lit (children's literature featuring sick children) and lab lit (literature on the theme of science and scientists).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 3rd September 2013.

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