Three Types of Flash Fiction

by Josiah Bancroft

The Battle of the Bards, a flash fiction competition I’m helping to judge, has had me thinking a lot about genre recently. I like to describe the major genres as Olympic events: the novel is the marathon, the short story is the hundred-meter dash, and flash fiction is the pole vault. (Poetry is a gymnastic floor routine, with ball, of course.) I like to conceive of them this way to emphasize the point that the length of a piece is not equal to its difficulty or merit. (That’s right, novelists: a greater word count does not equate a greater literary accomplishment.)

Flash fiction requires perfect focus, absolute vision, and an economy of words that does not result in terse, halting prose. Despite these constraints, good flash fiction will be complex, nuanced, and even surprising. It will conjure up a scene or sequence or a history that is as vivid as daydream, and just as fleeting. Most importantly, it will elicit an emotional response that leaves the reader feeling differently than they did at the start.

There are many types of flash fiction. The scope, structure, and intent of those types varies widely, and rarely will a piece fit snugly into any single type. But here are three types of flash fiction I’ve encountered and enjoy.

The Microcosm

Some flash fiction pieces seem larger than their presence on the page. They give us a taste of another world and sometimes infer a plot of epic or generational proportions. Usually, these stories don’t focus so much on the individual stars (the motives, conflicts, and flaws of characters) as they do the constellations that result. These stories can feel historical, grandiose, and polemical.

The Vignette

Subtle and constrained, the vignette offers us a glimpse of another life. They are painterly, and focus on the textures and surfaces of a moment, a memory, or a scene. These are meditative, descriptive pieces that aren’t usually concerned with conflict or consequence; they have no dramatic arc, and little inflection. They often challenge the assumption that all human perception is about the same.

The Open Door

A character stands before an open door. They are deliberating about whether to go through or not. Like an unsolved mystery, the Open Door presents us with a dramatic question, gives us some sense of the stakes, and tells enough about the character’s motivation or history to give us a sense of inevitability, then concludes without showing us what the character decides, leaving it to us to finish the story ourselves. Open Door stories depend upon a sense of fate to be successful, and yet readers will often disagree on the answer to the open question. As a result, Open Door stories can tell us a lot about how we view the world.

This is far from an exhaustive list. There are many, many other types of flash fiction pieces. I’m looking forward to seeing what new worlds, scenes, and characters result from the Battle of the Bards. I hope you enter and help us to spread the word.