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Ask Jess – Is this flash or micro?

Word count 762 | Reading Time 3 Minutes, 4 Seconds 

At a lecture given by Kathy Fish and KB Carle on the topic of flash fiction, the perineal question about word counts came up. Fish said if a story is getting close to the 800-900-word count mark, she pauses to consider whether the piece is best served in a small fiction form or if it wants (and needs) to be something else. Fish’s response echoes a common question about short-form fiction work – is this piece micro, flash, or does it want to be something longer?

Consider what flash and micro asks of us.

When I sit to pages, I ask myself how much of the story do I want the reader to infer? I don’t want to make anyone work too hard to unravel my prose, but I also don’t want to give it all away. Maybe the sweet spot to determine the length lies in ambiguity.

We find the story we want to tell, and then we look for all the ways we can tell it so that it’s immersive, sensory, and alive. But what is flash? It’s a moment of narrative that shines in a brief, bright, sudden way. We expect flash to move quickly; we expect it to offer a sudden glint on the reflective surface that are our writer’s minds. We also expect it to be elaborate, complex, and full of nuance. What we don’t always expect is that it gives us a complete ending.

So, is this piece flash or micro? 

I think there’s a level of nuance in really dynamic pieces of short-form fiction directly tied to ambiguity. What are you leaving off the page for the reader to piece together? What needs to be said for the story to be complete? 

Let’s take a look at Kate Finegan’s And Even Still the River, 599 words, published in January in Fractured Lit. In the final stanza of Finegan’s work, we see a summation of the narrative arc. Again, there’s a layer of ambiguity, but we see a conclusion that feels complete. Finegan’s last line, “And the raspberry vines wait outside, and the riverbed lies empty just beyond the door,” is loose but feels buttoned up enough to end the piece. Throughout “And Even Still the River,” Finegan pulls us close and then pulls back, giving the narrative an undulating wave that allows the last line to be perfectly complete with just a few questions lingering.

Conversely, when we explore Your Life as a Bottle by Sarah Freligh, 168 words, published in Pithead Chapel, we see a micro piece of fiction that leaves the reader with enough of a conclusion that’s not completely buttoned up. It’s loose and open to interpretation, but it still satisfies all the pieces required of a complete narrative (beginning, middle, and an end, along with clearly defined stakes and a narrative arc). The last line of “Your Life as a Bottle,” begins with the word “later,” allowing the reader to infer and understand that the definitive arc of this character is going to happen off the page, which the reader can fully buy into since Freligh has given us all of the details so perfectly that the story is complete.

There are no answers! 

Kidding, there’s an answer, but it’s so personal for each writer. Asking myself how much work I want the reader to do by the end helps me determine if I allow the final/full arc of the characters to happen elsewhere or on the page. If the narrative demands a turn on the page, then it’s likely I’ll let the piece extend to flash length. However, there’s merit to seeing if you can compress your flash to micro. Chances are, this experiment will help you get to the true heart of your story, which might ultimately help you revise it so the prose sings and the narrative shines. If you can’t compress it and it’s already at that 800-900 mark, ask yourself what the story wants. It might want to become a short, a series of interlinked flashes, or even, dare I say, a novel.

Of course, there’s no hard and fast rule to any of this because it’s all creative work and open to interpretation. But when I explore work with these perimeters in mind, it helps me decide if I can whittle a flash into a piece of fiction. Ultimately, the end goal is always to present a complete and total story with all the requisite elements on the page. Otherwise, we wade into vignette territory or even prose poems, and that’s a different set of weeds.

Jessica Evans is the author of LEARN TO FIND (2014), HIPPIE MAFIA (2016), and PHANTOM GRIEFS AND KITCHEN MAGIC (forthcoming, 2021). Evans earned her MFA from Spalding where her fiction work focused on the agency of female and female-identifying characters. Her work can be found in LEON Literary Review, The Louisville Review, Louisiana Review, Outlook Springs, and elsewhere. She is the EIC of Twin Pies Literary and a mentor with Veterans Writing Project. Evans has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. Hang out with her on Twitter @jesssica__evans

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