Flash fiction: 'Intense, urgent and a little explosive'

Flash fiction – very short, bite-sized stories – has become the favourite form of many writers

Flash fiction – very short, bite-sized stories – has become the favourite form of many writers. It's succinct, punchy and
effective – perfect for the online reader and perfectly in synch with the times, writes DECLAN BURKE

LESS HAS always been more in the writing of fiction, but “flash fiction” takes the concept to a whole new level.

In essence, a flash fiction is a very short short story, the classic example being attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

"Flash fiction appeals because it gets right to the heart of human experience in just a few words," says author Alison Wells. "Its brevity and condensed resonance make sure it lingers in the mind and heart. It has the power of a poem but with greater clarity and accessibility." Nuala Ní­Chonchúir is a novelist, poet and short-story writer. "Lovers of flash fiction, like poets, value brevity and the hit of surprise that flash often delivers," she says. "A good flash story is intense, urgent and often a little explosive, but also deep and clear, so the effect on the reader is like that of a poem – as you read it you admire its concision and, afterwards, it lingers." The format is quickly gaining credibility. The Dublin Review of Books, for example, announced Ní­ Chonchúir as the winner of its second annual flash fiction competition recently, securing her a prize of €1,000.


“I definitely think Web 2.0, especially blogs and online magazines, have facilitated the growth of the flash fiction,” says author Rob Kitchin, who specialises in the “drabble”, a short story of exactly 100 words. “In some ways, though, the rise says more about how the internet is affecting writers than readers. Flash fiction groups are kind of like poetry circles for the Web 2.0 generation.”

The ubiquitous hand-held devices are also proving to be ideal content delivery systems for shorter works of fiction. Alison Wells believes flash fiction to be particularly suited to the smaller devices, such as smart-phones. “They’re small, bite-sized, consumable amounts of fiction that can be consumed on a train or bus ride or in the small pockets of time that people have within their day,” she says.

The format is also beneficial to the author. “As a writer the appeal is the immediacy,” says Canadian author John McFetridge, “the very short trip from initial inspiration to finished product. I just spent almost three years working on a book, but a flash fiction can be done in a couple of days. Or,” he laughs, “at least you know a lot sooner if it’s going to work or not.”

McFetridge also employs a collection of flash fiction as a calling card, giving away a sample of his work to readers for free via digital download. Rob Kitchin has already benefited from offering his flash fictions for free online.

“It can be a very good way of getting noticed,” he says. “The most obvious example is Stuart Neville, whose agent discovered him via a short story in [online magazine] Thuglit. I also hooked up with my agent through a flash fiction challenge, where the agent was a judge. In both cases we were asked if we had any full-length pieces they could take a look at.”

Stuart Neville's debut novel, The Twelve, went on to win the LA Times'Crime Novel Award in 2010 with a novel derived from his short story submission. While Neville's trajectory took him into the publishing mainstream, a more experimental direction being pursued is for a writer to compile a novel from a mosaic of shorter fictions.

"I'm working on a book of interrelated flash fictions [ Flashes of Sadness and Light] at the moment," says Alison Wells. "And I see more and more flash fiction collections becoming available. My favourite so far is Tania Hershman's The White Road and Other Stories. I think it marks a transition in literature forms and what is considered 'a book'."

As for the commercial prospects for flash fiction, Wells believes the format is quickly approaching its tipping point.

“There are several smaller presses that have their eye on survival and are very savvy about the potential of very short fiction, and making it available on ebooks in particular. Short, snappy, easily consumable fiction without huge production outlays seems to make sense. For authors, I also see the potential for flash fiction to develop somewhat similarly to the music industry, where indie bands such as the Arctic Monkeys made their name through initially free downloads.”

John McFetridge also identifies the revolution in music as pointing the way forward. “I think there’s real potential in the curator aspect of flash fiction. The marketable skill isn’t so much the writing of the flash fiction, it’s in the collecting them together in some kind of linked way – the way a good music programmer can put together a few hours of songs from a lot of different musicians, maybe not even of the same style. The distribution possibilities on smartphones make the possibility of subscription sales seem likely.

“I don’t imagine the writers would get paid very much for their flash fictions,” he says, “but a good editor might be able to afford a sandwich and an extra cup of coffee in the internet cafe where they put a collection together.”

Example 1: a drabble 'Blood Pumping Quick'  A drabble by Rob Kitchin

Cold. Wet. Dark except for the flickering dance of honeyed light. Clinging to the lee of a ditch, covered in mud and god knows what. The shuffle of boots on the tarmac above. Waiting. Waiting. Praying. Whispered voices, a distant shout, feet running.

Count to ten, a deep breath, glancing left and right, silhouetted figures disappearing round a bend. Up and across the road, over a barbed wire fence, trousers snagging, ripping, blood beading. Into a stand of old birch trees, glancing back. The flames reach up for the stars. What was home is gone. Shouting. Shots. Blood pumping quick.

Example 2: 'The Doora Spinster' by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

We were up on Doora Hill, tossing our hankies into the air. I had taken off my skirt and blouse and Dónal was in his pelt, bouncing over the heather, letting the wind take his hanky, then running to grab it back.

Jack Gillespie, our neighbour, was footing turf on the bog. He saw us, half-dressed, and went to tell our mammy. She had sent us with a lemon cake to Miss Madden – the Doora Spinster – and we had eaten half of it.

Miss Madden let us into her cottage.

“Tell your mother I’m grateful,” she said, inspecting the broken end of the cake. “There are mighty mice on Doora Hill; they’d take the bit out of your mouth,” she said.

We sat at her table, tickling her cat with our feet, and drinking milk with slices of the cake.

Jack was in our kitchen when we got home. He pointed, said, “Ooh, ooh,” so we’d know we were in trouble.

“They ate the bitch, Missus, I seen them,” Jack said. He called everything “the bitch”. “But worse than that, Missus, they were half-nude.” He poked his tongue over his lips.

“That’s enough now, Jack,” mammy said, guiding him to the door. She gave him a coin for tobacco and he went off shout-singing, “Asshole, Asshole, A soldier I will be . . . ”. Mammy tutted. “You’d no business eating that cake.” But she went delicate on us because daddy was coming home that night and it made her happy to lie in his arms late in the morning.

The next day, with mammy and daddy still wrapped together in bed, we went up Doora Hill to fish our favourite spot on the Dooyertha. It was a fine day.

“We’ll swim instead,” said Dónal.

We were about to jump from the riverbank when we saw Jack come out of Miss Madden’s cottage.

“He’ll tell on us again,” I said.

Jack came towards us and we saw that he had no trousers on, just his shirt. His legs were the colour of buttermilk and the shirt was stained brown. He walked right past us.

“Jack,” Dónal called. “Jack Gillespie! Don’t you tell our mammy we were going in the river.” He turned to us; his face queer and sad. He pointed to Miss Madden’s house. “I killed the bitch,” he said. “She’s dead in the bed.” He sat on the riverbank.

We pulled on our clothes and ran home. I knocked on the bedroom door and daddy roared, “Go away”. Dónal said, “Something’s happened to Miss Madden.” “Sacred heart of Jesus,” mammy whispered, when we told them what Jack had said. Daddy leapt out of bed and ran up the hill.

Jack was sent to the asylum in Dublin and our daddy moved back home, so we were a real family again. Mammy called it a blessing in disguise.


Think you can write a very short story? Send your Flash Fiction of no more than 500 words to flashfiction@irishtimes.com and we’ll publish the best.