What is “flash fiction”? the writer asks. It’s a common literary term and yet, in internet forums and in my writing classes, I hear people asking this question. If I was to give an answer that started with the modern history of the form, I’d mention that in the 1970s you’d rarely find a story under five pages published in a literary journal. And then in the 80s, writers like Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates started writing them and magazines started publishing them and now they’re everywhere, with journals dedicated solely to publishing these little fictions.
But when someone asks that question, what they’re usually wanting to know is “How long is flash fiction?” Well, this isn’t an easy question to answer, and if you spend some time googling how long a flash piece or a microfiction story is supposed to be, you’ll understand why. The numbers differ significantly depending on who you ask. As does the terminology.
The introduction to the Sudden Fiction anthology says their stories top out at five pages, roughly 1,750 words. But the author of the craft book In a Flash says that the length of sudden fiction varies but is usually capped at 750 words. The anthology Micro Fiction set the upper limit of their pieces at 300 words. But for years I helped judge a microfiction contest at a literary magazine and our cap was 500 words. I’ll always think of microfiction as being that length.
From my experience, after hanging around in this industry for a while, when writers and editors refer to “flash fiction”, they’re usually talking about stories of 1,000 words or less. The other terms—sudden fiction, micro fiction, short shorts, etc.—are basically extensions and subcategories of flash, which serves as the primary term.
But since I feel a responsibility to give some guidance here, I’ll throw out some numbers.
How Long is Flash Fiction?
My Unofficial, Ballpark, Non-Exhaustive Flash-Length Guide
Sudden Fiction- 2,000 words or fewer
Flash Fiction- 1,000 words or fewer
Short Shorts- somewhere in the middle
MicroFiction- 500 words or fewer
Drabble- precisely 100 words
Dribble- precisely 50 words
Hint Fiction- 25 words or fewer
But alas, there actually is a better source for these numbers than this blog post. And so maybe the question isn’t difficult after all. “How long is flash fiction?” The answer is—whatever a publication’s submissions guidelines say they are. That’s all that matters.
Now, if you’re wanting to know more about what flash fiction *is* (beyond the scope of this post), what the medium can do, and how one author in particular approaches making it, read this essay by Nuala O’Connor. And read John Dufresne’s Flash. And spend some time browsing SmokeLong Quarterly and Wigleaf. That will keep you busy for a while.