13 Metaphors for Flash Fiction
There are many ways to describe these gems, these shards, these bonbons of stories.
Of all of the forms of fiction, “flash fiction” is the only one described with a metaphor.
As James Thomas, the editor of several seminal anthologies of flash fiction, tells the story, he was talking with his wife about what to call these short stories of under 1,000 words. He’d been calling them “blasters,” but that moniker didn’t ring with any poetic allure. Right at that moment, a bolt of lightning struck, and the dark night lit up with a flash. “Call them flash,” his wife said. And the name of a genre was born.
The irony is that flash, despite being the smallest of fictional forms, breeds sub-genres and an ever-flowing list of new names. Flash stories are often called miniatures, short shorts, or postcard stories. There is the drabble (stories that are exactly 100 words), micro-fiction (stories under 400 words), and hint fiction (stories under 25 words).
The great writer Yasunari Kawabata described his shorts as “palm-of-the hand” stories because they were so small they could fit in the palm of your hand. Others call them “smokelongs” because they last as long as it takes to smoke a cigarette.
All of these different names — these forms nested within one other like a series of Russian dolls — support a theory of mine: constraints don’t limit creativity; they spark new layers of creativity.
So here are 13 metaphors for flash fiction, which I hope illuminate the form just as that lightning bolt did so long ago.
- Flash fiction is like the “spontaneous fission” of an atom. When the nucleus splits in two, the drama (or the explosion, rather) begins.
- Flash fiction is like a tiny island, created from an unknown eruption at the earth’s crust, enhanced by the expanse of the sea around it.
- Flash fiction is like the moment a turtle pokes its head out of its shell.
- Flash fiction is like an afternoon nap. Short. Dreamy. A respite from a tough day. And when you wake up, you’re in a different state.
- Flash fiction is the moment you hit the brakes.
- Flash fiction is like a brook flowing through the woods. It’s easy to step over, and it’s not big enough to be on any map, but then when you pause to observe it, you see life teeming within it.
- Flash fiction is like the tip of a needle, designed to prick.
- Flash fiction is like a rare seashell you find on the beach. It’s delicate, yet it’s traveled though many waters, only to be mysteriously left on the shore.
- Flash fiction is like the faint rustling of a ghost, present, yet absent; alive, yet dead. It has something to tell you, but you have to listen closely — or listen differently.
- Flash fiction is like a submarine, able to go to places beneath the surface of life in a way that longer stories can’t.
- Flash fiction is like a candle swaying to an an invisible breeze in a sea of darkness.
- Flash fiction is like a pill: small and seemingly harmless, yet full of powerful substances that might heal, might kill — or might just alter your senses.
- Flash fiction is like the light of a sparkler, spritzing light into the air for only a minute.
There are many more, of course. I’ve heard flash fiction compared to a snow globe. You can peer into a strange miniature world, you can hold it in your hand, and with one simple shake, the world changes.
Dr. Seuss was certainly entranced by the possibilities of tiny worlds. In Horton Hears a Who! Horton the Elephant hears a small speck of dust talking to him, and he discovers that the speck is actually a tiny planet, home to a community called Whoville, where microscopic creatures called Whos live (and presumably read tiny stories).
Perhaps the best metaphor is Hemingway’s iceberg analogy for the short story. He said that a good story is like an iceberg: 90 percent of it is invisible, under water. In the case of flash, 99% of it might be invisible.
What metaphors do you think of when describing flash?
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.