Back in the 1980s, I participated in a week-long writer's workshop run by the esteemed Will Weaver of Red Earth, White Earth and A Gravestone Made Of Wheat fame. Both were made into movies, with the Gravestone movie titled Sweet Land.
One day, Will had us try what sounded to me like a very difficult exercise. He wanted us to write a story in 100 words. The goal was to have the same basic structure of a novel. Open with a character in serious trouble (the hook), create a rising plot curve that led to a climax, and have a short resolution (the denouement).
I fumbled many times, only to find out that by the time I had a bit of a beginning, I was already at 175 words. To begin a story and carry it through a climax and a resolution and do it all in 100 words seemed impossible.
This experience reinforced what all of us learn when we try writing in various forms and lengths. The shorter the piece of writing, the harder it is.
Enter Flash Fiction, the new moniker that describes Will's writing assignment from 30 years ago. Not only are such stories fun to read, they're becoming popular.
My friend Mark Bacon has been writing Flash Fiction mysteries from his lair in Reno.
His latest book is Cops, Crooks & Other Stories in 100 Words: 101 Tales. Not only are the stories 100 words long, which is very difficult to do, but they are really fun! You can get the entire collection on your Kindle for only 99 cents.
I asked Mark some questions about it.
Q. You write stories that are 100 words long. You call it Flash Fiction. It's a great term. Where'd it come from?
Bacon: The term was coined in 1992 with the publication of Flash Fiction, 72 Very Short Stories. In the book’s introduction, James Thomas, one of the editors, says the term was created to differentiate under 750-word stories from longer stories published in two previous anthologies he edited.
The editors took their word length from a 1925 Hemingway story called A Very Short Story. It’s a good one about a World War I soldier and a nurse caring for him. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. You can find various versions of it online. One I read was just longer than 600 words
Was Hemingway’s tale the first flash fiction? Certainly not. If I had to guess, I’d say the first flash fiction author was Aesop in the sixth century BCE. Modern translations of the oral fable The Ant and the Grasshopper have it pegged at about 150 words.
Q. You taught journalism at Cal Poly and at UNR, you wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle for years, and your stories have appeared in a bunch of major, cool rags like The Washington Post. You've also written several non-fiction books. How'd you get from all that to Flash Fiction?
Bacon: It was all based on a dare from a friend who was using 100-word stories as a practice exercise for a writing group he was leading. He said I should try it. I wrote a couple of stories and enjoyed them. It was a great challenge to have a complete story with a satisfying ending in just 100-words. After the first few stories, I was hooked. I kept writing until I had more than enough for two short books.
Q. Is Flash Fiction changing the way you think?
Bacon: No, but reading on the Internet is, and not necessarily for the better. I believe our attention spans and our short-term memories are shrinking. For example, how long do you look at a website before you become impatient when you don’t see exactly what you’re seeking? Four to five seconds sound about right?
On the other hand, I think flash fiction is perfectly suited for impatient readers. My stories will get you to an ending--one I hope you didn’t see coming--in less than a minute.
Q. Do you get impatient when someone is talking and it takes them a bit to get to their point?
Bacon: Sometimes. I find that more the case in writing. My journalistic training taught me to put the most important information up front. Of course with mystery flash fiction, I save some of the good stuff 'til last.
Q. So, what is the accepted length for flash fiction? Is it 100 words, Hemingway’s 600 words, or something else?
Bacon: Good question but almost impossible to answer. Online flash fiction journals abound and there is a smattering of print anthologies as well, but editors have their own ideas of what constitutes flash fiction. Published flash fiction generally ranges from about 25 words to 1,500 words. The 100-word limit seems to be the most common.
Some writers even do 140-character stories to fit in a tweet. I’ve read some good ones and some not so good. I tried to cut down one of my stories to fit Twitter, but it took three or four tweets to really tell it completely.
Honor Among Thieves
The darkened home looked empty. Pete tried the front door. Locked. Around back, he jimmied open a patio door with a credit card.
Immediately, he saw a man holding a pillowcase full of something.
“Shit. You startled me,” the man said. “First time I ever seen two guys break into the same house. I came in the window. But hey, I believe in professional courtesy. I’ve got jewelry and laptops. Rest is yours.”
Pete opened a drawer, reached inside.
“Hold it,” Pete said, pointing a revolver.
“What about professional courtesy?”
“I forgot my keys,” Pete said. “I live here.”