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Flash fiction is a style of fictional literature of extreme brevity. There is no widely accepted definition of the length of the category. Some self-described markets for flash fiction impose caps as low as fifty three words, while others consider stories as long as a thousand words to be flash fiction.
Many terms for this category exist, including micro fiction, micro narrative, micro-story, postcard fiction, short short, short short story, and sudden fiction, though distinctions are sometimes drawn among some of these terms. For example, sometimes 1000 words is considered the cutoff between "flash fiction" and the slightly longer short story "sudden fiction". The terms "micro fiction" and "micro narrative" are sometimes defined as below 300 words, and include these diminutive subcategories: the drabble (100 words), nanofiction (55 words), and Twitter fiction, aka twitterature (140 characters, or about 23 words).
The term "short short story" was the most common term from the early 20th century until about 2000, when it was overtaken by "flash fiction."
One of the first known usages of the term "flash fiction" in reference to the literary style was the 1992 anthology Flash Fiction: Seventy-Two Very Short Stories. Editor James Thomas stated that the editors' definition of a "flash fiction" was a story that would fit on two facing pages of a typical digest-sized literary magazine. In China the style is frequently called a "smoke long" or "palm-sized" story, with the comparison being that the story should be finished before the reader could finish smoking a cigarette.
Very short fiction has roots going back to prehistory, recorded at origin of writing, including fables and parables, notably Aesop's Fables in the west, and Panchatantra and Jataka tales in India. Later examples include the tales of Nasreddin, and Zen koans such as The Gateless Gate.
Very short literary works in other genres include fragments and essays, such as the Japanese zuihitsu genre.
In modern times, the "short short story" is particularly associated with Cosmopolitan magazine from the 1920s, with anthologies of The American Short Short Story appearing in the 1930s. William Somerset Maugham was a notable proponent, with his Cosmopolitans: Very Short Stories (1936) being an early collection. In Japan, the short short story was popularized in the post-war period particularly by Michio Tsuzuki (都筑道夫?).
Practitioners have included Saadi of Shiraz ("Gulistan of Sa'di"), Bolesław Prus, Anton Chekhov, O. Henry, Franz Kafka, Lydia Davis, H.P. Lovecraft, Yasunari Kawabata, Ernest Hemingway, Julio Cortázar, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Fredric Brown, John Cage, Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley. Examples of Hemingway's pioneering of the form are the 18 very short pieces in his first short-story collection, In Our Time. It is disputed whether (to win a bet), as alleged, he also wrote the flash fiction "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn".
Also notable are the 62 "short-shorts" which comprise Severance, the thematic collection by Robert Olen Butler in which each story describes the remaining 90 seconds of conscious awareness within human heads which have been decapitated.
British writers well known for their flash fiction include David Gaffney and Tania Hershman.
Spanish-speaking literature has many authors of microstories, including Augusto Monterroso ("El dinosaurio"), Luis Felipe Lomelí ("El Emigrante"), and Juan Pedro Aparicio ("Luis XIV"). Their microstories are some of the shortest ever written in that language. In Spain, authors of microrrelatos (very short fictions) have included Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Andrés Neuman, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, José Jiménez Lozano, Javier Tomeo, José María Merino, Juan José Millás, and Óscar Esquivias. In Argentina, notable contemporary contributors to the genre have included Marco Denevi, Luisa Valenzuela, Raúl Brasca, and Ana María Shua.
The Italian writer Italo Calvino consciously searched for a short narrative form, drawing inspiration from Argentine writers Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares and finding that Monterroso's was "the most perfect he could find"; "El dinosaurio", in turn, possibly inspired his "The Dinosaurs".
German-language authors of Kürzestgeschichten, influenced by brief narratives penned by Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka, have included Peter Bichsel, Heimito von Doderer, Günter Kunert, and Helmut Heißenbüttel.
The Arabic-speaking world has produced a number of micro-story authors, including the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, whose book Echoes of an Autobiography is composed mainly of such stories. Other flash fiction writers in Arabic include Zakariyyā Tāmir, Sulayman al-Tuwayhir, Haidar Haidar, Husam Fakhr, Mahmud Shuqayr, Laylā al-'Uthmān and Dimah Sahwayl.
In the Russian-speaking world the best known flash fiction author is Linor Goralik.
Access to the Internet has enhanced an awareness of flash fiction, with websites and zines such as Flash Fiction Online and Flash Fiction Magazine being devoted entirely to the style. Author Paulo Coelho remarked that the "democratization of communication offered by the Internet has made positive in-roads" and directly influenced the style's popularity. Notable flash fiction writers online include Bruce Holland Rogers, Steve Almond, Barbara Henning, Grant Faulkner and Nancy Stohlman.
Unlike a vignette, flash fiction often contains the classic story elements: protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications, and resolution. However, unlike a traditional short story, the limited word length often forces some of these elements to remain unwritten – that is, hinted at or implied in the written storyline. Different readers thus may have different interpretations.
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- Christopher Kasparek, "Two Micro-Stories by Bolesław Prus," The Polish Review, 1995, no. 1, pp. 99–103.
- Zygmunt Szweykowski, Twórczość Bolesława Prusa (The Art of Bolesław Prus), 2nd ed., Warsaw, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1972.
- The dictionary definition of flash fiction at Wiktionary