Not too long ago, in the Before Times, when I still dared attend large gatherings like writers’ conferences, I experienced the delight of winning first place in the Flash Fiction category at William Bernhardt’s Red Sneaker conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I’d written the story sometime in the past, but had never done anything with it. When I saw its word-count qualified it as “flash fiction,” I felt the same joy as M. Jourdain (The Bourgeois Gentleman) when he learned he’d been speaking prose. I’d written flash fiction without knowing it.
Short narratives are nothing new. Aesop had a lock on them five hundred years before the Common Era. What’s new is what they are called in the twentieth century.
In the 1940s, Cosmopolitan magazine was noted for publishing fiction of various lengths in each edition, including what they called a “short short” story of 1,000 words.
Beginning in the 1970s, specialized terms for short fiction took off. Definitions differ and word-counts differ, depending upon whose website or contest guidelines are consulted. Here are some terms for short fiction with the approximate date of origin and the word-count associated with it:
microstory (1973) 100 words
flash fiction (1977) 1,000 words
sudden fiction (1983) 1,500 words
postcard fiction (1985) 500 words
55fiction (1987) 55 words
nano-fiction (1994) 300 words
twitterature (2006) 280 characters
hint fiction (2007) 25 words
By far, my favorite terms for a short fiction narrative are drabble—a story of 100 words—and its offshoot, dribble, a story of 50 words.
Drabble as a term for a story of 100 words originated in the 1980s among British sci-fi fans. In the Monty Python Big Red Book (1971),”Drabble” is a word game in which the first participant to write a novel, wins. The Birmingham University Science Fiction Society adapted the game’s rules to the real world by reducing novel-length to a hundred words.
The drabble/dribble family has provided flash fiction writers with useful units of measurement:
drabble = 100 words
dribble = 50 words
half a dribble = 25 words
drabble and a half = 150 words
double drabble (aka a drouble) = 200 words
My own experience with flash fiction did not end with winning the contest. Soon afterward—presumably on the strength of my win—I was invited to judge a flash fiction contest. Wishing to be as objective as possible, I drew up a judging rubric. This may or may not be useful to readers planning to enter one of the numerous short fiction contests to be found online.
What one judge was looking for:
Length: 1,000 words maximum
Formatting: 12-point Times Roman, double-spaced
Deadline: [date specified]
Plot: A story that triggers an emotion in the reader
Characterization: Well drawn characters
Development: A change from the beginning to the end
Language: Standard English spelling and usage when appropriate. Nonstandard English suitable to the characters.
Conclusion: An effective last line
Short fiction, whatever one chooses to call it, should possess the elements of a satisfying story of any length. It will have a clear beginning, middle, and end. It will begin with exposition, exhibit rising action, and finish with a climax, falling action, and resolution. That’s a tall order for a hundred words, or even a thousand. Making the attempt is an excellent way to hone the craft.