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Flash Fiction 101

Flash Fiction 101

When I tell people what I do, the question I am most commonly asked right after “What do you write?” is, “What is flash fiction?” This usually leaves me wondering how I might summarize this easily enough so I don’t confound their question even more.

Short stories have been around for millennia, but the genre dubbed “flash fiction” is still new enough that most want a definition of some kind. A simple answer is, It’s just a very short story. How short can be defined by the individual publication in which the story appears— some consider a flash story to be under 2,000 words, others say 200. Smokelong Quarterly tops out at 1000 words; conversely Short, Fast and Deadly will not consider anything longer than 140 characters; in
other words, a Twitter “tweet.”

I have the good fortune of editing two magazines, as well as co-hosting a radio show for Milwaukee’s Lake Effect called Flash Fiction Fridays. When I read submissions for the show, I use 500 words or less as the marker. Why? Because I have to cut it off somewhere. But here’s the catch: for a story to be a piece of flash fiction it has to be authentically short.

Flash fiction isn’t a summary of a longer story, or a hasty reflection of a protagonist’s life. Brevity, indeed, has little to do with the story’s purpose. Rather, it’s the common thread of the genre. After word count, consider how engaging is your piece? The best flash fiction can make you feel like you’ve experienced as much plot,
character, meaning, and mystery that you would find in novel—all in a mere page.

Flash fiction often relies on tools of ambiguity and implication to create engagement in its readers. Often, more is less: the words you choose not to write are equally important as those you employ. Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-worder, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” is an excellent example of the power of suggestion. Hemingway gives just enough information to force us to imagine a tragic back-story.

I have written (and have had produced) several plays, a novel, numerous poems, and several short stories. But there is something about flash fiction, some addictive feature that keeps drawing me back: the working, and re-working, and plying the features of the genre. These stories that I offer you, generously selected by editor Jason A. Smith, are more emblematic than definitive. I am always working toward “getting them right,” and therefore these are, like all my writing, works in progress. I offer them to you for consideration, for discussion, for your pleasure.


Turkey Town

Last Saturday I had to work the banquet at Turkey Town. The room was crammed with oversized people stuffed into tuxedos. The shouts of drunken frat boys doing Jello shots echoed through the December hall like it was an after-hours party. Who gets married in December? Shot guns. That’s who. We ran out of the beef bourguignon, and people were not happy with our clams casino. They smelled like Aunt Ethyl’s room at the home. Some lady grabbed me, her hand a hundred years old. Hey can you get me another one of these? Five sheets to the wind. Sure, I grabbed her glass. She’d never remember which penguin she spoke to. We weren’t supposed to touch the food, but it’s a long corridor from the kitchen to the serving trays. I had a whole plate stashed behind the bread trays in the pantry. Old man Mertz nearly caught me chowing. I pretended I was messing with my braces. He didn’t care. Get back on the floor, son. When they announced the father-of-the-bride dance, I snuck out back. Didn’t want to watch that crap. Not knowing where my Dad even is. The cold hurt my lungs, made it hard to breathe. A kerjillion stars. My breath billowed, like a cartoon.


Wrestling with Genetics

The sports gene I get from my dead father. He returns to me now as a scent. Water-logged leaves. He’s the tetherball attached to my pole, the flying trapeze of my soul. He runs a bar tab higher than a kite then turns to me and says let’s hit the road, son. And when I argue with him about the keys, he says that’s a bunch of horseshit. But then I bluff: I know he’s an accident waiting to happen. I can see his ailing pickled heart sitting in a laboratory glass jar on a top shelf too high to reach. I wrestle him to the ground, grab the keys, load Dad into the back seat. And for once, just this time, he won’t barrel down a back road at one hundred miles an hour, straight into the side of a quarrelsome train.

 


In It to Win It

First Quarter
I really thought his name was Orange Juice. He could run
fast, the way he looked in that Buffalo Bills uniform. Oh
Jay, “The Juice” made my heart beat faster. I was nearly ten
when he appeared in a TV commercial for Hertz rental cars.
He smiled, teeth Pepsodent white. His ’fro a perfect halo.
“Such a nice fellow,” my mother said.
He was the desired neighbor who never existed in our lily
white world.

Second Quarter
“Who are the police chasing?” Susan asked, pointing.
We were waiting for our laundry to dry at Soapy Suds in
the Castro. The darks were taking extra quarters to finish.
And the lady was trying to find my favorite white wool
sweater that I’d dry-cleaned.
The television, mounted in one corner, showed a dozen
L.A.P.D. cars on a low-speed chase, sirens blasting. They
pursued a white Ford Bronco on the freeway. I glanced
outside, a crowd had gathered on that warm June day,
watching the TV.
I squinted, trying to read the scrolling letters across the
bottom. “Holy shit, it’s O.J. Simpson.” My jaw flew open.
Susan stopped folding our dark load. “He’s a fugitive!”
she smirked.
I was clueless, the air drained from the room. “But…
why?”
She looked at me point blank. “You didn’t hear? He killed
his wife.”

Third Quarter
The day that he got off, we were all assembled in the boardroom:
VPs with secretaries, the artists and education department, on one
end. Sales, marketing, finance on the other. Some corporate suits
lounged in cushy chairs around the massive ebony oblong table.
“They’re calling this the trial of the century,” Netsa whispered.
I nodded. We’d watched the trial televised on court TV all blistering
white-heat summer.
My heart raced. The flat screen TV announced the verdict: Not
Guilty.
Netsa grabbed my arm. We drew in a collective groan: shocked,
dismayed, bewildered.
All except Lily Roy who shouted, “YAY!” Her fist pumped as high
as it could go.

Fourth Quarter
Another touchdown scored. He won the game, got away with it.
Acquitted. Or did he?
“Can you believe it?” my mother scrawled in a card. “He’s in
trouble … again. But this time around they got him. He’s in prison.
How are you?”
I knew mom had meant O.J., as I traipsed across my black-andwhite
tile floor. Was this the sentence he deserved, I wondered.
Karma, for an act of malice, or a drug induced spree? Murdering
his divorced spouse and her best friend. A killer: more Othello
than Manson. Still, how do you live with yourself after such Shakespearean
drama? Such odious choices.
Pull the wool.
Drink your juice.
Score.


A, B, C

A

As the floss slides in and out I think of the guillotine.
Her head on the chopping block.
I’d be thinking what bill did I forget to pay.
Who’s e-mail didn’t I return.
Instead she was praying to some unforeseen deity.
Before becoming a severed head.

B

I don’t like our neighbors and I envy their number. A perfect
dozen: ten kids, two sets of twins, Molly and Millie, Timmy and
Tommy. And the ideal parents: Trina and Marco. Doting, athletic,
loving—all facets of family that are completely foreign to me. I’m
adopted. No siblings. My parents both work. My home school
teacher, Fern, lives in our garage apartment.
She pretty much raised me.
I always wanted a brother.
I could tease him. Beat the shit out of him.
Squeeze him till he can’t breathe.

C

“Most people don’t like a sarcastic cancer patient actually,” I said.
Aunt Sally replied, “Well, most people don’t have cancer.”
I drove her to her chemo treatments on Mondays, my day off.
This was her third round. I turned up the radio.
She reapplied lipstick, turned it back down. “And what’s so bad
with a little sarcasm every now and then?”
Here we go.
“Saved your Uncle Tony’s and my marriage. Maybe you shoulda
tried a little sarcasm with your ex-wife?”
I turned the radio back up.
 

 

 

 

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Robert Vaughan's prose and poetry appears in over 150 literary journals such as Elimae, Metazen, and BlazeVOX. His short fiction is anthologized in Nouns of Assemblage from Housefire and Stripped from P.S. Books. Vaughan is a fiction editor at JMWW magazine and Thunderclap! Press.

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