Go On and Strut Your Short Shorts: The Greatness of Flash Fiction
By Becky Tuch
It's summer here in Boston, and I can think of no better time to talk about short shorts. That's right. Micro-minis. Stories so short they'll make your mother drag you back into the house until you promise to write something decent, like a novel!
Indeed, short shorts are scandalous fun—think of Junot Diaz's "Alma": You have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.
But these prose morsels are also a perfectly respectable literary form. Short shorts, aka "flash fiction," "sudden fiction," and "micro fiction," have been increasing in popularity ever since Robert Shapard and James Thomas' Sudden Fiction anthologies came about in the mid-80s. These anthologies have featured the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Grace Paley, Joyce Carol Oates, as well as lesser-known writers finding their way to publication for the first time.
Short shorts can be funny, intense, politically charged or all of the above. They can be experimental or conventional. They can tickle you with a neat trick at the end, or they can play it straight all the way through. Because of the range of possibilities with this form, writing short shorts can help writers break old patterns, explore new styles, and test the potential of story ideas.
But if this still isn't enough to convince you to flash your literary chops (or to convince your mother to let you do so), here are some added incentives:
Short shorts are short. With a word max of 2,500, there is an end in sight. This is a wonderful relief to the long-winded among us, or novelists who may work for years on a single project. You can take a break with a short short and still have a feeling of accomplishment.
"That would be such a good idea for a story!" If you're a fiction writer, this thought probably flits through your mind a hundred times a day. You see a woman get impatient on line at the bank and before you know it, you're giving her backstory—a marriage falling apart, an ailing son. Her mother's never approved of her career as an ice cream truck driver, and her father eats paper. By the time she's gone, you've got her entire life story inside your head…But what do you do with it?
You could give her a cameo in your novel. Or save her on a page in your journal. But maybe what she really needs is a story of her own. With short shorts, you finally have a repository for the characters and stories you discover on a daily basis. The woman on line, her disapproving mother, even her paper-eating father—you don't need a novel to share them with the world. Short shorts make room for everyone. (For more on paper-eating, see the short short story "Consumed" by Steve Amick.)
You can extend your metaphors. Many short shorts are a form of extended metaphor. This narrative tactic would likely fail in a novel where readers would tire of the contrivance. But with just a few pages, a single metaphor can do wonders. "Flying" by Stephen Dixon begins with a little girl fidgeting with the handle of a plane door. Soon, she is jumping out of the plane. Her father jumps out after her and before long they are flying side by side, protecting one another as they float through the clouds. Stretched over a hundred pages, the metaphor becomes trite and tired. But in this bite-size literary nugget, father and daughter's mid-air affection makes the story sweet and memorable.
Break free and be funny! You might spend your time writing heartbreaking novels of staggering import. Or maybe your novel-in-progress is a giant barrel of laughs. Whatever your ongoing project, it's only natural to want a break. Short shorts can be a relief for writers, a venue where you can try on a different voice, a different mood. If you write serious fiction, try satire. If you write humor, try something dark and heavy.
Many people know Patricia Marx as a contributing writer for The New Yorker. But in her short short "Audio Tour," we meet Debby, a bitter and possibly crazy woman taking readers on a tour of her ex-boyfriend's apartment. The second-person address here and Debby's righteous indignation are a new side of the writer who normally writes about shopping trends in New York.
Get your run-on on. By far the most memorable short short I've ever read is "Incarnations of Burned Children" by David Foster Wallace. I was introduced to this story as a student at Grub Street, and have read it at least twenty times since. Wallace was a master of the run-on sentence, but the technique works especially well in short shorts, where the author can drive home one specific idea. The idea in this case is two parents' harrowing failure to protect their baby. Three pages long, with no paragraph breaks, Wallace's only non-run-on sentence admonishes us: If you've never wept and want to, have a child.
Motif-a-rama. With so much to consider in the construction of a narrative—character development, character arc, rising action, plot twists, fresh language—motifs often fall by the wayside. I've read countless stories that are good, but fall short of greatness because they lack some special something. I think motifs—repeated images, symbols, ideas—are the glue that makes a good story great.
If motifs are doing their job, you don't always notice them. But they nonetheless contribute to the overall effect of a story. Dagoberto Gilb's "Shout" is a stellar example of this. Upon first reading, it's easy to get caught up in the drama of a poor family living in the city—the claustrophobia, the noise, the father's alcoholism. Later readings reveal how carefully Gilb has constructed this world. In various forms we see heat, humidity, sweat, and conversely, cold showers, cold beer. In no less that 32 references to weather, we get a haunting picture of a father's hot temper and children frozen in fear.
Writing short shorts can teach you to use motifs for dramatic effect, a skill that just might take your writing to the next level.
You can be published. A lot of literary magazines are specifically seeking short short stories these days. A search with "Short short story" criteria at duotrope will yield over 700 results. Additionally, American Short Fiction, The Southeast Review, Glimmer Train, and Writers' Digest are just a few places that sponsor yearly short-short story contests. Another great contest is sponsored by Writers' Journal, whose tri-monthly Write-to-Win contest provides the first part of an opening sentence which you must use as the opening to your short short story.
So, now that you have ample reason, what are you waiting for? Summer's here. Put on your short shorts and let's see you flash those literary chops.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.