January 13, 2012 — How short can a story be and still be called a story?
An emerging genre of ultra-short creative writing is the subject of a January Term course, "Flash Fiction," at the University of Virginia.
Elizabeth Denton, who teaches fiction writing in the English department in the College of Arts & Sciences, said the name and parameters of this writing format are so new, they are not fixed; some writers call it "sudden fiction," "short-short fiction" or "micro-fiction." She said in China they are called "smoke-long stories," because one of these pieces takes as long to read as it takes to smoke a cigarette.
The flash-fiction length is not based on a hard-and-fast rule, but a piece is usually not longer than three pages, or more than 1,000 words; some say micro-fiction should be about 300 words. Many pieces are just one paragraph.
One might be tempted to attribute "flash fiction" to the explosion of social media and its ever-briefer modes of expression, but short fiction has existed in literature for a long time, depending on how it's defined, Denton said.
As a starting point for the students – some of whom hadn't written creative prose before – Denton began by assigning students to read some of Aesop's fables and "Italian Folktales" by Italo Calvino.
With those examples, she could point out some features of flash fiction: Despite their brevity, the stories involve the reader, encapsulate a concept or tackle a big moral issue. Aesop went so far as to spell out the moral, which isn't done in literature anymore, of course, but that helps emphasize the importance of the ending.
"Sometimes the way a flash fiction ends, it can seem like a trick or a punchline," she said. The class discusses whether the pieces they read are successful or seem too tricky.
Denton, who has taught at U.Va. since 1998, has written a collection of short stories, "Kneeling on Rice," and has published many individual stories in literary journals, but she hasn't yet been converted to the even-shorter form. Some of her stories are as long as 30 pages.
Flash fiction does not leave much space for character development, so revealing details assume more importance, she said.
These short pieces succeed or fail on their finesse with limitations, she said. No matter how short, the flash has to stand on its own as a story.
The form forces the writer and the reader to pay careful attention to the use of language. Authors sometimes use a particular literary device to organize or structure the flash story. The students read one story in which the writer used very short paragraphs that repeatedly began with the same phrase, "Before that ..." to unravel a sequence of events.
Denton thought flash fiction would work well in the J-Term course structure, with its four-hour days over two weeks, and that is proving true, she said. Because the fiction is so short, she has students read a story aloud before they discuss it. Everyone can focus on the same place of the story, because they're not leafing through pages or getting sidetracked.
Third-year Echols scholar Courtney Hartnett said she thinks the intensive format helps with the creative process; she has devoted much of the two weeks to writing. An interdisciplinary writing major, she also writes poetry and non-fiction (and recently won third place in the U.Va. Art Museum's Writer's Eye Contest).
Reading the stories together can inspire the students, and sometimes they learn through imitation. Denton said she picks writers who show artful techniques, and also gives writing exercises in class, as well as overnight. The 19 students break into smaller groups for afternoon workshops to share and work on what they have written.
Their final project entails writing on a theme – the class chose "loss" – and each student will write a piece of flash fiction. Denton will collect them into an anthology. A short anthology, of course.