Flash fiction has been around awhile, and is established enough to have a fairly substantial Wikipedia entry (see here). My first introduction to flash fiction as its own category came through a UCLA extension class in the fall of 2008. Since then, I’ve been reading and writing flash, and trying to keep track of what’s what. As you can see from the Wikipedia entry, the general definition of flash fiction is a story of 1000 words or less. Some journals cut it even shorter – 100 words, 250 words, 500 words, 600 words. And a few go a little longer – pushing 1200 or even 1500 words. Even this is just a small sampling, too small to even begin to do justice to what’s out there in the “flash” category.
But my purpose here isn’t to go into a listing of lengths. What caught my attention this week were the submission guidelines for Reflection’s Edge. (And, before I continue, let me say that I enjoy and respect Reflection’s Edge and am absolutely not picking on them! Just trying to understand something I’ve not considered before . . .) Their guidelines say that they typically accept stories between 500 – 10,000 words, but do NOT accept flash fiction. Now there may be other journals that do the same. In fact, I’m sure there are, and I just haven’t noticed them yet, or if I have, I haven’t noticed this distinction. But this time, I had a piece I wanted to submit that was just under 900 words. When I wrote this particular piece, I did not think of it as “flash” or otherwise. I was not trying to write to a word count. I simply wrote the story as it came to me, polished it, and then considered what it might be.
Now here’s where I’m getting caught up. I’ve always considered the flash fiction label as involving two things – under 1000 words (depending on the market), and a complete story in the traditional sense (i.e., a narrative containing, in however abbreviated a sense, characters, plot arc, beginning, middle, and end). But, if a story can be 500 – 1000 words long, and NOT flash fiction, then what does that make it?
Let me list a few more things that Reflection’s Edge does not accept: plays, novels, poems, and prose poems. These, I can understand. A play and a poem are not a narrative story. A novel exceeds their accepted word length. (Another point I should mention – they also exclude short shorts, which raises the same dilemma as the flash exception, since short shorts are sometimes defined synonymously with flash.)
So here is the question: What is this difference between flash fiction and NOT flash fiction? And do these guidelines imply that there is something more to the definition of flash fiction than length and completeness as a narrative story? If so, what is that difference? Is it the intent to write flash? Or has flash somehow taken on a further meaning, that limits it to places that explicitly or exclusively publish flash, or maybe to something else?
And, better yet, how do I decide if my under 1000 word story is flash fiction or not?