Deep Dive into Short Forms: Flash Fiction

by Brenda Joyce Patterson
published in Writing

My next few articles will act as a deep dive into specific short form works. We’ll examine a piece from each short form and dive deep into its inner workings to find the path to success in our own short form pieces.

Flash is one of my not-so-secret literary short forms loves. I love it for the same reasons I love poetry. Done right, flash conjures a lingering image, emotion, or a world with just a few well-placed words.

Brevity and distillation are the hallmarks of the form. Description, carefully chosen to evoke character, setting, time and place, works as the center point for any flash piece. Of course, flash doesn’t give the writer much room to work storytelling magic.

Let’s take a look at the term “flash” and its characteristics. Flash actually refers to a story’s length, which usually falls between 6 – 2,000 words. Published flash pieces range between 300 and 1,000 words. It’s likely you’ve read flash fiction under other names, which correspond to the story’s length:

  • Flash fiction: 6 – 2000 words
  • Sudden fiction: up to 750 words
  • Drabble, or microfiction: up to 100 words
  • Dribble, or minisaga: up to 50 words
  • Twitterature: up to 280 characters
  • Six-word story

With its compactness, it’s no wonder flash fiction is described as “one part story, one part poem.”   

Part Story, Part Poem

A story traditionally has five elements: character(s), setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Poetry, at its most spare, juggles three: form, sound, and imagery. Flash fiction balances, or tries to balance, some mixture of all of these.

With such little space to tell a story, flash fiction writers create works that surprise, startle or intrigue—from beginning to end. They have little time to mind their storytelling manners. They often rely heavily on one or two of these elements.

Likable, an interesting jewel of a story by Deb Olin Unferth, works this monocular focus to its advantage. The story is spare; it has no dialogue. What it lacks in setting, it more than compensates with character.

Likable is all character. Through the focus on character, Olin Unferth more than delivers the story’s conflict and resolution. Though interestingly enough, Olin Unferth never describes the main (and only) character physically. We are simply told the unnamed main character is a woman in the story’s opening.

Let’s Read:

“She could see she was becoming a thoroughly unlikable person. Each time she opened her mouth she said something ugly, and whoever was nearby liked her a little less. These could be strangers, these could be people she loved, or people she knew only slightly whom she had hoped would one day be her friends.”

We learn she is unlikeable and why; in the story’s last paragraph, we are told that she is forty-one.

“Or had she become less likable simply by growing older—so that she might be doing the same thing she always did, but because she was now forty-one, not twenty, it had become unlikable because any woman doing something at forty-one is more unlikable than a woman doing it at twenty?”

Olin Unferth uses also the poetic element of form in the piece. Although the story runs only 331 words, she uses long lines or sentences to set the story’s tone.

All forward motion in Likeable comes from those long sentences. It also comes from the effect of her (our unnamed main character) unlikeability on the world she inhabits.

Initially, when reading fiction, we expect a traditional story form. In Likeable’s form, the story length and the character’s unlikeability push us along. Despite ourselves, we want to know what happens to her.

In flash fiction, we, as readers, can expect writers to construct non-traditional stories. We, as writers, should exploit the form’s small stage to experiment. We should eagerly exploit the opportunity inseparable from flash to create new versions of our stories.


If flash fiction is new to you, I suggest reading the following books and magazines for technique, craft, and practice:

Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.

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