Flash fiction: the crumbs of a larger meal

Published 3:56 pm Friday, January 20, 2023

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All authors want to tell some kind of story. But they can do that in a wide variety of ways. And, of course, a wide variety of lengths.

Some writers can be excessively wordy to fill up pages and pages of more than one book. They find one really interesting story, character, or setting, and then they just keep writing and writing and writing and writing about that.

Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time” fantasy series, for example, is 14 books long.

Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series – which covers a whole cast of different characters who live on the titular Discworld – spans 45 novels in total.

Famed mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote a ton of stories featuring the fictional detective Hercule Poirot. And by “a ton of stories,” I mean 33 novels, 50 short stories, and two plays. Poirot sounds like he must be a really busy guy!

I’d never heard of “The Destroyer” series by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir before, but as of 2018 it’s a staggering total of 152 novels. You’d really have to invest in a lot of free time to make your way through that one, I think.

These are only just a few examples of long-running book series! Plenty of other authors have accomplished that feat as well.

Then you have the writers who keep their story contained to one novel, but then they make that novel much longer than expected.

Some examples you might have heard of include “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo (over 545,000 words), “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy (approximately 600,000 words in the English translation), and “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace (over 543,000) words. There were some examples I found that were over 1 million words, but I’d never heard of the titles or the authors, so I just assume that not many people have had the time to read those books. (I know I don’t.)

Victor Hugo, who also penned “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” has a reputation for being rather long-winded. For example, he spends quite a good deal of time in “The Hunchback” going into detail about French architecture. And “Les Miserables” contains one of the longest sentences ever, clocking in at 823 words long! (It’s really quite an abuse of semi-colons.) For comparison, many of the articles I write for this newspaper are not even that long, and they contain several properly punctuated sentences.

Personally, I don’t think I could ever write a massively long novel. I remember struggling to hit the minimum wordcount for essays in school. I’d just rather get straight to the point than meander around with extra things that aren’t important. You’ll never catch me detailing French architecture unless it’s going to be of vital importance later! Otherwise, use your own imagination.

Luckily for the less-wordy folks like me, there are other options to tell a story in a smaller amount of space. There are novellas, which are typically between 10,000 to 40,000 words, and short stories, which are usually under 10,000 words.

These mediums are a nice way to enjoy a story if you don’t have as much time to sit down and focus on reading for hours and hours. I like to think of short stories as a snack! Just as nice as a full meal, but quicker to devour.

My personal favorite short stories are little horror tales, like the iconic works of Edgar Allen Poe, or thought-provoking science fiction, like the multitude of stories from Isaac Asimov. But, like long novels, a short story can span any genre of writing. They’re not all the same boring stories you were forced to read in high school English class.

What I have been fascinated with lately, however, is flash fiction. The shortest of the short stories, they’re like the littlest crumbs from whatever you’re snacking on. A flash fic can be as long as 1,000 words, or as short as only a few words. I like to think of them more like snapshots. With such a small number of words to work with, you’re only getting a glimpse of what could be a fuller, larger story.

Flash fiction lets the audience fill in the blanks. It doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary tangents. A masterful writer can weave together a satisfying story with only the barest bones of plot or setting.

But you don’t have to be a masterful writer to write flash fiction. It can also simply be a good writing exercise if the idea of composing a long novel or novel series feels too daunting to tackle.

Try it out for yourself.

Pick a random word, or use a word generator on the internet, to serve as the focus for your flash story, and then build things up around that word. You can convey a single moment in time or explore a particular emotion. And because the story is so short, you don’t even have to worry about giving your character a name if you don’t want to. (Sometimes, names and titles are the hardest part.)

There are really no rules. Just have fun with it!

What kinds of stories can you tell with the fewest number of words? The possibilities are practically endless, and you can make a story out of anything. Or, well, almost anything. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m definitely not going to be writing a dissertation about French architecture anytime soon!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.