Flash Fiction

by Robert Swartwood

FFC published this article by Robert Swartwood in April of 2009 about a form of flash Robert named Hint Fiction. He then ran a contest that led to the publication of hint fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer. Robert recently announced a new contest. Submissions are open for the month of April. The link to the contest appears at the end of this article. –Jim Harrington


Flash fiction isn’t anything new. It’s been around since the time of Aesop.  Why it’s becoming more prominent and popular today is because of this nifty digital age in which we now live.

Modern men and women have established severe forms of ADD — they don’t like sitting still for extended periods of time, and looking at long lines of text on a computer screen? Forget it. Twitter just proves this new disorder by giving 140-character updates of just about anything — there is even an online magazine published in the Twitter format, and one author has even begun to serialize his novel using the application. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next year or two a new service is invented, a complete knock-off of Twitter, that displays updates of only 70-characters, because, let’s face it, 140-characters is just TOO MUCH.

Actually, the question I want to present now isn’t what’s too much.

It’s what’s too little.

Nearly everyone is familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The legend of where this piece came from varies in detail, but basically Hemingway was challenged to write a story in just six words; he came back the next day with that little ditty, what he supposedly claimed was his best work.

Now do those six words constitute a story?

Some people think so; some don’t.

Some argue that there is no protagonist, no conflict, no beginning, middle, end.

Some argue that you don’t necessarily NEED a protagonist, conflict, a beginning, middle, end to make a story.

What is a story, after all? I’m not going to try to debase it by dissecting its Merriam-Webster definition. Everyone has his or her own skewed opinion of what it means.

Some are hardcore traditionalists who require the beginning, middle, end, protag, conflict, the whole nine yards. To them if any of those pieces are missing, then it’s not a true story.

Others are more lax. They understand inference plays a great part. After all, imagination IS key, but at what point does a writer depend too much upon a reader’s imagination?

Personally, I’ve always believed a writer should try to find a strong middle ground in his or her storytelling — a place where they can meet the reader halfway, just giving enough detail that the reader’s imagination is then able to fill in the rest. Those, I believe, are the best type of stories, because the reader becomes engaged in the process.

Good flash fiction demands this of its readers.  It only gives so much, enough that the reader can fill in the blanks, help finish the painting, and then, at the end, can marvel at its brilliance.

But what about those really, really, really, really, REALLY short stories?  The, you know, six-word stories.  Are they considered flash fiction?  If not, what should we call them?

Me, I want to coin a term, so I’m going to do it here and now: those very, very, very, VERY short stories should be called Hint Fiction. Because that’s all the reader is ever given.  Just a hint.  Not a scene, or a setting, or even a character sketch.  They are given a hint, nothing more, and are asked — nay, forced — to fill in the blanks.  And believe me, there are a lot of blanks.

What is the word limit of Hint Fiction?  Well, if a drabble is 100 words, and a dribble is 50 words, then how about we say Hint Fiction cannot be anything more than 25 words.

One of the biggest hints in Hint Fiction is the title.  It’s like the setup to a joke, and the “story” is the punch line.  Without the one, the other won’t work.

For those of you wrinkling your noses right now, try to relate this to abstract art. Is a painting of three joined panels — one blue, one yellow, one red — art?  You’re probably thinking no, but I guarantee you there are some who would pay thousands for such a piece.

Here’s another question: Is Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night art?

Almost all of you will probably agree that it is.  And why do you think this?  Because ever since your very first art class in school you were told that it was art.  You were told that van Gogh was a genius and that The Starry Night is one of his masterpieces.

Let’s face it, art is subjective.  Either we like it or we don’t.  The same goes with flash fiction and, now that I’ve coined the term, Hint Fiction.  We can argue about Hemingway’s six-word story, or any piece of Hint Fiction, until we’re blue in the face.  In the end we won’t change any minds. We know what we know and we think what we think and nothing is going to change that.

If you haven’t realized it yet, I’m far from being a staunch traditionalist. I like trying new things. I think writers should be encouraged to try new things. It’s not always going to work, of course, but at least you tried, and that’s the important part.

As Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Now go out there and spread the good word about Hint Fiction.

Just remember to tell them who sent you.


Here’s the link to a follow up article we published in April of 2010, and here’s the link to the contest.


Robert Swartwood lives in Pennsylvania.  His Hint Fiction has appeared in elimae, Lamination Colony, and The Northville Review.


by Randall Brown

I write flash fiction because, in 2003, Vermont College rejected my application for admission to their MFA program. I hadn’t written “creatively” in fifteen years, and maybe it took that long to miss it. My undergraduate workshops—and this is not an exaggeration—frequently ended with my professor asking me either “Are you okay?” or “What did you do to [fill in name of person(s) in class]?” Yes, I was okay—and nothing, there was nothing I could think of that I did to [name of person(s) in class].

After that rejection, instead of quitting, I took online classes, and during one of them with Terri Brown-Davidson (who gets my vote for the one of the great, great creative writing teachers in the world), I decided to make the weekly 500-word exercise complete pieces. She eventually sent me to Zoetrope Virtual Studio and there it was—flash fiction, this form I’d discovered on my own before knowing it existed. Maybe that’s what drew me to flash, this feeling that it had been mine before it was “theirs.”

I have to say that I do love writing rules; in fact, I kind of collect them. Before I discovered them, I thought writing had no boundaries, only existed in ways I could imagine it. So I don’t want to give the impression that I found flash as this boundless, undefined thing. I loved its simple rule, the simplest rule of all to follow: don’t write beyond this word count. The word-count would often change—25, 69, 100, 250, 500, 750, 999—but that rule never did.

It’s an easy rule to understand, isn’t it? It’s completely arbitrary—unless you think of 250 words as equaling a page and then maybe certain word counts begin to have some logic to them. I found that governing principle fascinating and freeing.  I loved the constriction of time and space, how the anxiety of the blank page turned to the fear of a page too filled-up. I loved how, before the self-doubt could arise to stop me in mid-sentence, all the sentences were already there. I love that flash fiction, of all things, this most diminished of prose forms, re-defined me from the moment I found it, first in my self, then in the world. I love that most people in the world don’t know what it is, and when they do glimpse it, it doesn’t matter at all to them. I like that almost everyone misses it. I like that I didn’t.

I write flash fiction because that rejection from Vermont College, to me, said (once again) that I couldn’t write. I took the classes because I was tired of the world telling me their truths. They were never nice ones, you know. I write flash fiction because I discovered I could write. As long as I didn’t write too much.


Randall Brown teaches at Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (Flume Press, 2008), his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton, 2010). He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print, including online at American Short Fiction, Tin House, and Mississippi Review; and in-print in Cream City Review, Lake Effect, and Harpur Palate.

by Nancy Stohlman

Nancy Stohlman

Rewind to October 31, 2012. It began like this:

Are you doing Nanowrimo this year?

No, are you?

No, I don’t have a novel in me right now. I’m writing flash fiction.

Me too.

Maybe I should just write a flash story a day, you know, in solidarity.

I would do that if someone sent me a prompt every day.

And so Flashnano was born—30 stories in 30 days during the month of November, in solidarity with our novel-writing NaNoWriMo brothers and sisters.

I’ve participated in and greatly enjoyed NaNoWriMo many times, hitting the 50,000 mark twice. Mostly I love the marathon of it—writing that much material that fast is a really effective way to elude the inner critic. Granted, much of the material is throwaway, but within that big lump of clay are usually some really interesting insights, twists, phrases, ideas, and places that we may not have written ourselves into if we had gone about writing in our “normal” way.

The same is true with Flashnano—not every story is a winner, but participating in and embracing such a heightened outpouring often midwives stories into existence that may not have been created by other means.

Says first-time participant Nicholas Morris: “One of the great things I got out of Flashnano was that it forced me to live up to all of the creative writing advice I give my students, namely ‘Give yourself permission to write badly’ and ‘Try to write every day.’ It’s very easy to give that advice, but it’s much more difficult to follow it.” 

And for those of us already in love with flash fiction, getting to play is one of the particular thrills of the form—since the stories are short, you are more inclined to take risks, trying things you might not try in a longer story or novel. Says participant Yvonne Rupert, “I took chances with my writing, approaching each day’s prompt with a ‘let’s try it and see’ attitude—regardless of what happened the day before.”

In 2012 I posted the daily prompts on my personal Facebook page just for fun. In 2013, when I realized it was creating a bigger buzz than I had anticipated, I got more organized and created webpages devoted to the prompts on both social media and my personal website. I would estimate that 200 writers took the plunge with me this past November.

The most common question I get asked about Flashnano is whether I read everyone’s stories. Absolutely not—whew! I wouldn’t have time to write myself if I did. Participants are certainly welcome to share and ultimately submit the work they produce during November, but I am only the facilitator. And just like NaNoWriMo, there is no judge or jury—ultimately this November contract is between you and your personal writing god.

So mark your calendars: This fall I will again challenge flash fiction writers everywhere to write 30 stories in 30 days. And whether you “win” or not, you are guaranteed to feed off the excitement of a flash fiction marathon and write a whole lot of material that you might not have otherwise written. To me, that’s a win.

Check out prompts from 2012 and 2013 here: http://nancystohlman.com/flashnano/


Nancy Stohlman’s books include The Monster Opera (2013), Searching for Suzi: a flash novel (2009), Live From Palestine (2003), and three anthologies of flash fiction including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape (2010), which was a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is a founding member of  Fast Forward Press, the creator of  The F-Bomb Flash Fiction Reading Series in Denver, and her work has been nominated for The Best of the Web.


by Bonnie ZoBell

This is the second installment of a round-up in which I’ve asked fiction writers how they go about constructing collections of their stories. Part One appeared on February 13 and contained personal descriptions of the process from: xTx, Robert Vaughan, Amber Sparks, Ethel Rohan, Kristine Ong Muslim, Sean Lovelace, and Cynthia Litz.

Read on!


Kim Henderson, author of The Kind of Girl, Winner of the Seventh Annual Rose Metal
Press Short Short Chapbook Contest

kim henderson

As I created my chapbook, The Kind of Girl, I learned that making a chapbook is not so different from writing, revising, and polishing a single story. It takes time and patience, micro-thinking and macro-thinking, and knowing when to shut down your brain and simply listen to the rhythm of the work. Unfortunately, the saying “Kill all your darlings” holds true for creating a chapbook, too (although at least those pieces left out can be published individually).

Creating a chapbook requires careful attention to structure and arc. For The Kind of Girl, the structure and arc finally worked when I let the material lead the way, when I stopped trying to control the chapbook and started listening to it. It eventually became clear that I had a set of stories pondering the ways girls and women find themselves defined —by circumstance and environment, by others, by their own hand. Once I figured that out, I built the chapbook in three sections loosely following the thematic arc (from girls who have very little choice in how they are defined to women who define themselves), which also coincided for the most part with age, development, and environment.

The most important lesson I learned when creating a chapbook is the lesson I always seem to learn—to trust the material and my unconscious to find the way, and to do my best to be patient.


Kyle Hemmings, author of Zin! and Séance

I’m no expert in this subject as this question kept running through my mind both during and after my completed chapbooks. And I can’t speak for everyone. Many of my chapbooks are full of hybrid work, not just flash fiction. I like to think of order as a building up of tension and intensity, maybe starting with some medium tension to get the reader’s interest, building steady, with a drop here and there to let the reader catch his or her breath. For me, personally I like to add a piece here and there to give different perspectives of a character or situation or a thematic variation. Then, I try to put my most intense piece(s) towards the end, kind of similar to the climax in a novel. It’s not an art I have mastered, but that’s how I like to think of it.


Casey Hannan, author of Mother Ghost

My story collection, Mother Ghost, is short. Every story in there is short. The book itself is physically short. Squat. What a hateful little word. Well, I’ll tell you something I tried to do with the book, and who knows if it meant squat to anyone but me, but I tried to turn the book into one long story. Not a novel, no. But even down to the title. Those two words connect all the stories. Some string of misery ties them. So I pulled on that chain. A gay boy comes out of the closet. He moves. He loves. He loses. He loves more. He dies. That’s the order, which is not to say you should order a collection of stories like a human life, but more to say I did, and at least one reader recognized that’s what I did. He said I was a devil for it.

Beverlyn Elliott, author of How Blue Can You Get?

When I first began to look at the flash fiction and shorts I’d written over the years, I thought it was a hodgepodge of stories that were too dissimilar in theme to group into a cohesive collection. I decided at one point to just continue to send the stories out for publication in e-zines and literary magazines. However, my job became much more demanding and I didn’t have the time I’d once had to devote to submissions. I just barely had time to write. This made me sad to the point that I was really blue about the whole thing. That’s when it struck me that while these stories were diverse, the thread that made them work together was the fact that they all had the blues, or their situations could be characterized as the blues.

Then I remembered the old B.B. King song “How Blue Can You Get?” which was mentioned in one of the stories, and I decided my collection would embody the blues. My decision to arrange the stories the way they are in the book had more to do with the size and subject matter than anything. I wanted to vary the placement of the stories by length, and the stories with more intense subject matter for later in the book. So, that is how the stories in my collection were arranged, the manner in which they were published.


Peter Cherches, author of Lift Your Right Arm

The question of organization is paramount to my writing as much of my work consists of sequences of related short prose pieces (some call them flash fiction, some call them prose poems). Each sequence tends to have 25-30 individual pieces, kind of chapbook length themselves. In fact, the first of these I did, “Bagatelles,” was published originally as a chapbook in 1981 and is now in my collection Lift Your Right Arm, which consists of five sequences written over a 32-year period. For this book I faced the problem not only of organization within each section, but of the organization of those five sequences into a coherent collection.

How to order one’s pieces for a chapbook is both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity is to conceive of the chapbook as something greater than the sum of the parts, and that’s where sequencing is of utmost importance. It’s all about the ebb and flow, and it’s worth considerable attention.

Every writer will find her own solution, a sequence that presents the individual pieces in the best light as well as makes the reader feel that the whole collection adds up to something beyond a vessel for a bunch of unrelated pieces. The best analogies for what I do come from music. Think of your chapbook as a suite. The individual pieces can stand alone, but how do they best resonate with each other?

Of course you want to start with something really strong that will draw the reader in, make him want more, and you want to end with something that will keep your work in the reader’s mind. Think of your first piece as a kind of overture; choose something that perhaps represents a number of themes, concerns, or stylistic devices that appear throughout the book. Then think of how you can sequence the other pieces so that one can almost feel the inevitability of the implicit transitions. I mentioned ebb and flow above. Think of varying the tone of adjacent pieces in a way that will provide variety but won’t feel like jarring juxtapositions. Perhaps some pieces that are thematically related but stylistically different, or vice versa, will work well together. Think of the kind of “narrative arc” you want the whole collection to have, then try out various combinations. Don’t minimize the importance of shuffling pieces with purpose, then re-reading your work in each potential sequence until you hit your eureka moment. It’s great to have readers choose favorite pieces, but ultimately you want the reader to have been gripped by the whole collection, to have a respect for the whole range of the work. I think a good closing piece would be one of the strongest, but also the most open-ended, i.e. something that will spark questions that will keep the reader thinking about your chapbook…and looking forward to your next one.



Daniel Chacón, author of Hotel Juarez: Stories, Rooms and Loops, Unending Rooms, and the shadows took him: A Novel

When I put together a collection of short fiction, I like to think of it as a structure, a building or a complex with many units in which people can enter. One of the most rewarding things about reading a novel is the act of entering into it. In fact, you could even say that the aesthetic phenomenon when it comes to a novel is that point wherein you forget you’re reading, and you are completely inside the world that you are co-creating, as a reader, with the author. You feel like you’re there.

When I put together my latest book of flash fiction (Hotel Juarez, Stories, Rooms and Loops) I ordered the stories in such a way that the experience would be like entering into a hotel. You walk into the entrance and there should be lots of light, a place people would want to linger for a while, stay for a few days. But the hotel that I envision is a little bit dark, somewhat scary, and as you go down the hallways, you can hear noises coming from the rooms, and you know beyond each door (each title), in every room there’s a story going on, some of them quite dark.

In my previous book of short stories, most of them flash fiction (Unending Rooms), I imagined the book was a house, one of those old white houses you used to walk by on your way to school. It has at least two stories, and probably an attic, with a round window with a cross hair frame. You don’t know who lives there, except sometimes you see an old lady sitting near a window, and you think the house is haunted. It scares you, but it also captures your imagination and you want to enter into it. Again, the first story should have lots of light, invite you into the house, but it gets darker and more creepy the further you enter into it.

A collection of stories is, like a novel, an entire experience. The “rooms” are not arbitrarily ordered. They create the entire experience of the book. Although you can enter any structure or complex from the side or the back or through a window, they are built, i.e. ordered in such a way that the experience gets deeper and deeper, and you get to know the place more and more the further you go inside, the further you enter into it. Flash fiction stories as a collection should be the same experience as a novel, in that sense. The deeper you go into it, the more understanding you have about the structure, i.e. the book itself.


Rusty Barnes, author of I Am Not Ariel, Mostly Redneck, and Breaking it Down

Ordering my book of flashes, Breaking it Down, was actually easy. I expected it to be a bit of a hard sell, so I included some of the longest stories at the beginning and at the end to give the lull of familiarity, and tried in the middle to keep a variety of styles, in as much as I write varieties of stories, which I really don’t. My idea was to start strong and end strong and, uh, to keep a strong middle. The book may be confused by all of my back-thinking about order, but too late for that now.

If I were to do it again, I would start strong and then let the pencil shavings fly where they were needed. At the same time I think it’s always a good idea to vary length of stories throughout a manuscript. I did also try to keep the stories with graphic sex separated, since there were more than a few. The book is still selling [a few copies here and there], so something clicked. I just wish I know what it was.


I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel hopeful about the prospect of collecting more of my work. It might even be fun to try out these different methods.

We’d love to hear from you, too, about any ingenious ways you know of to show collected works of fiction in their best possible light.


Bonnie ZoBell’s new connected collection with Press 53 is on pre-order here—What Happened Here, where it will then go on regular sale. Her fiction chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls, was published by Monkey Puzzle Press in March 2013. She’s received an NEA fellowship, the Capricorn Novel Award, and others and is currently working on a novel. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.

by Meg Pokrass

Author’s subtitle: Small Yet Mighty 

In my opinion, flash is perhaps the most honest form of expression, in that it does not need to impose artificial structure onto experience.

The term “flash fiction” may imply that a flash piece just comes to a writer, like a bolt of lightning, some kind of proverbial inspiration—and a writer burps it out. One of the reasons I am not fond of the term “flash fiction” is because of this perception. Writing flash fiction is the craft of creating miniature worlds.

Perhaps, when I first discovered flash fiction, I loved it so much that it intimidated me. For some reason, I never believed I could write flash, I was a poet. But, in 2008, I took my first plunge at flash fiction— taking my narrative poems and reworking them into stories. I wrote like a fiend. I could not stop.   Something had freed me.

When I write flash, I don’t begin with a plot, or a concept. Just a few images that are stuck in my brain, they don’t have to seem directly “meaningful”. I will figure out what a story means only many drafts later.  The story begins to tell itself. A writer just has to start anywhere.

I think we, as writers, need to learn to get out of the way, and let the stories come out by freeing our unconscious thoughts from critical observation. This is true in many art forms, not just writing.

A final draft should contain not one unessential word. Creating a genuine sense of emotional urgency in a very short space is an acquired skill at the art of omission. Beautiful, dense prose, which fulfills itself and brings a mysterious, sudden satisfaction to the reader—like great songs—are deceptively small in word count, yet strangely mighty.

I see life as many moments, hours, days and years strung together. I do not believe that life has a “narrative arc”—or if it does, it does not become clear until a person dies—and even then, the narrative arc of a person’s life is entirely subjective.

In my opinion, flash is perhaps the most honest form of expression, in that it does not need to impose artificial structure onto experience. The best flash tells an emotional story through sensory detail, with no frippery.  I suspect this is why this unique form has such a direct and demanding emotional tug.


Meg Pokrass is the author of the forthcoming novella-in-flash “Here, Where We Live” (Rose Metal Press, 2014) and “Damn Sure Right” (Press 53) a collection of flash fiction. Meg’s stories have been widely anthologized, most recently in the forthcoming W.W. Norton Anthology of Flash Fiction International (Shapard, Thomas and Merrill, 2015). Her flash-fiction and micro-fiction stories and humor pieces have appeared in around a hundred and fifty online and print publications, including McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, PANK, Smokelong Quarterly, Mississippi Review, MidAmerican Review, NANO Fiction, 100-Word Story, The Literarian, storySouth, Failbetter, Gigantic. Meg’s humor pieces, co-written with author Bobbie Ann Mason, have recently been showcased in TNB Original Fiction. Her flash fiction has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, been showcased for Dzanc Books’ Short Story Month and nominated for Best of the Web, Best of the Net, and Wigleaf’s Top 50 [Very] Short Fictions. She currently serves as an associate editor for Frederick Barthelme’s New World Writing.  Learn more about her at  megpokrass.com.






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