Short stories versus flash fiction – a thread from Electra Rhodes

The other day we spotted an excellent thread on short stories versus flash fiction on Twitter from wonderful writer, writing tutor and amazing all-rounder, Electra Rhodes who is teaching an hour-long workshop on Writing Wild Words, at the first of the new series of online flash fiction festival days on Saturday October 8th, the day before our 22nd Award closes at midnight GMT Sunday October 9th. Electra was going to teach this workshop at our face to face festival in July before she had to cancel due to Covid. So we’re delighted to be able to offer it again, online.

Electra’s thoughts below (thank you very much to her for agreeing to share them here) are a follow up to a recent thread she wrote on her Twitter feed on what to consider when submitting to a prose competition or magazine. That thread was picked up by Writing ie, who have added it to their resources.

Electra noted the Twitter thread on submitting raised some questions on what might be possible differences between a short story & a flash fiction. There’s plenty to unravel and think about in this second thread. And it’s another great resource for writers.

In introducing the new thread, she says: here’s a highly opinionated thread, written hot & posted cool.

Quick caveat – I’m claiming no literary authority/nor stating rules – I’m suggesting these are trends (for good or ill) that vary across the English speaking world! E.G. I *think* more U.K. comps/mags include short short under flash than in the US. Can’t speak to other languages.

1. Word length- for some comps/mags/folk a flash is any story under 1000 words. That ‘general consensus’ seems to have been ‘agreed’ early on. A flash is a short short story. Hard to write a good one. 1000 words (or lower max count). Done deal.

Yes! But! Things have changed (for some people/comps/mags). It seems length is only 1 of the distinguishing aspects. Now, there are 9 other elements that factor – form, plot, the role of the title, compression, language, *feel*, ‘landing’, imagery/metaphor, & experimentation.

2. Form – for some comps/mags/folk an invite to submit flash positively encourages an unusual shape or form – hermit crab, fractured narrative, meander, single sentence, dialogue only, & so on. There is still a narrative or ‘story’, but it doesn’t read like a short short.

3. Plot – something happens, there’s a shift of some kind but it;s not a (Western) arc with a beginning, middle and end, in this context, a flash is still a story, but a short short story isn’t (necessarily, in this context) a flash. Distinguishes a flash from prose poetry too.

4. The role of the title – long story short? It does lots of the heavy lifting for the piece – it’ll be an invitation, or the setting, the stakes, the shotgun that gets fired in the piece, or the crucial character – if your word count is tight the title needs to work real hard.

5. Compression – under 1000 words or 400 or less everything is compressed – the emotion, the tension (& its release), the # of characters, the # of plot ‘events’, the word choice, the use of dialogue esp. to show not tell, coming in late & leaving early. Basically, it’s intense.

6. Language – feels tight, bright & right. Verbs work harder so that adverbs can be cut. Anything not advancing the story/developing character is out. Rhythm, repetition, balance, & musicality at a word/sentence level matter. All the word choices feel purposeful & full of intent.

7. The Feel – it’s the afterimage from a nightdark photograph using just a flashbulb. Or the smell of petrichor after a storm. Or the memory arising from a particular song or taste. It’s distinct, has an instantaneous effect, & we’ll have different words for how it makes us feel.

Quick caveat – lots of flash bears reading multiple times for the full impact. But, I think the workings of a strong piece get you from the go. This isn’t to say short shorts won’t do the same, but they deliberately use different story ‘mechanics’ to score the same goals.

8. The Landing – the piece might not come to an ending, or a resolution, or a happy ever after, but it will ‘land’. The landing might mirror the opener /echo it. It might twist. It might pull one thread so tight the whole piece thrums. The landing feels both unforced and earned.

9.The use of imagery & metaphor – lots of good writing, long and short makes use of both, but both imagery & metaphor work extra hard in flash – to convey layers of meaning, to explore & reveal depth, and to stitch a piece together so that it is more than the sum of its parts.

10. Experimentation – because it’s so short, flash lends itself to experimentation that might be harder to sustain in a longer piece or which perhaps don’t suit a short short story – language, repetition, ‘borrowed’ form, layout, intensity, POV/tense (e.g. 2nd person future) etc.

Electra also asked for additional thouhts from others. Do read her orginal thread on her twitter account to find another thread in response, from Matt Kendrick and here are a couple of interesting extras from writers Fiona McCay and Tommy Dean.

Fiona McCay says: “For me, flash has to make so much use of white space – the wider arc of story that’s off the page, but there, between the lines. It’s something I’m always looking for when reading for a competition (and always trying to get into my own flash).”

Tommy Dean says: “I would also argue that flash demands that the reader make inferences and judgments b/c flash eschews exposition and explanation as much as possible.”

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