How To Tell The Difference Between A Short Story and Flash Fiction

As an individual who has written in both forms, I’m still never entirely sure that I do not cross the very thin line that separates short stories from flash fiction. As if I wasn’t confused enough, I came across a quote by South African writer Nadine Gordimer: ‘Short story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of – the present moment.’

So I decided to write this post based on my own experience and a little research – The Cambridge Introduction to the Short Story in English.

Short story is the more popular form of the two. The obvious element being that it is ‘short’.

So…

1)      A short story is short.

2)      It has a beginning, middle and end. Basically, the fact that it is short does not mean that it is not a complete story. It will have the same elements as a novel length book and the characters will have a certain level of depth. Adrain Hunter describes the short story as ‘a doll’s house, a fully realized world in miniature.’

3)      It usually spans between 500 and 10,000 words.

 

The word ‘flash’ in flash fiction denotes the idea of speed. So I think it is safe to say that it should be a story that can be read quickly.

1)      Flash fiction is very short

2)      It will not have the complete structure of a story – beginning, middle and end, when examined closely. Flash fiction tends to begin at the moment of conflict (the middle).

3)      It usually spans between 100 and 1,000 words.

 

Nonetheless, there is overlap between the two forms but they are both gorgeous forms to experiment with. Like with poetry, every word counts. There can be no ‘throw-away’ characters, no careless dialogue. No action that does not add to the telling of the tale.

‘Our modern attraction to short stories is not an accident of form; it is the sign of a real sense of fleetingness and fragility; it means that existence is only an impression, and, perhaps, only an illusion.’ G.K. Chesterton.

To some extent, the difference between the two forms is purely academic. I have never decided to write flash fiction beforehand but after I stop writing, I then identify it as flash fiction.

Here is a link to one of the examples of a short story that I was introduced to as a student, and which I was thoroughly moved by. I could relate to it. A Conversation with my Father by Grace Paley

Igoni Barrett’s Love is Power, or Something Like That is an excellent collection, and a great example of the short story form (review coming soon!).

I have also included an example of a flash fiction piece that I have written:

 

Lying is for Liars

By Oyinkan Braithwaite

 

“Did you use my perfume?”

“No.” but my face gave me away. I couldn’t look aunty Ronke in the eye. My eyes darted from curtain, to table, to floor and back again. I watched the ants following a militant path to the sugar cube I had dropped on the floor.

“What have I told you about lying?”

“Lying is for liars.”

“And the truth?”

“The truth will set you free.”

“Good and stop taking my perfume.” Her voice was light, as though she was smiling and so I looked up. She winked at me. A gesture that lit up her gorgeous features.

“Isn’t it past her bedtime?” aunty Yinka had walked into the room and she frowned at her sister. Then she took me by the hand and we walked up the stairs to my room.

“Will you tell me a story?” she blinked at me, and her long eyelashes flickered. She told me the story of the boy who cried wolf.

***

I woke up to shouting. Curious, I tiptoed downstairs and opened the living room door. They stood as though frozen, facing each other and breathing heavily. In side profile like that, they could have been the same person. Their lips were pulled back in a sneer, their eyes were narrowed.

And then they flung at each other. You could not distinguish who was who in the flurry of braids, and arms, and scarves. Aunty Ronke had her hands around her sister’s throat and she was squeezing. I screamed and the noise separated their bodies. Aunty Yinka walked over to me, hugged me and walked out. Aunty Ronke took my hand and led me to my room. She lifted me into my bed and tucked me in.

Then she asked me who I liked better

“Between you and aunty Yinka?”

“Yes, love.” she replied as she stroked my hair – I shivered. I wanted her to stop touching me. I could feel her fixed nails clawing at my roots and scraping my skull. I looked her in the eye.

“You, aunty Ronke.” She kissed me firmly on the cheek and left.

Aunty Yinka came in and asked the same question. I smiled, and gave her the same answer. She looked away first.

I could not sleep.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “How To Tell The Difference Between A Short Story and Flash Fiction

  1. Thank you so much for this! I have been pulling my hair out trying to identify a piece of work as flash fiction or a short story by word count alone. That is impossible as every website I go to has a different cut off, number wise. Looking at the difference between a clear beginning, middle and end vs. a moment of conflict that just HINTS at a larger story places the piece in question firmly in the category of flash fiction!

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