Most fiction writers understand that the major difference between a short story and flash fiction is the length of the piece. Some publishers make the distinction at 500 words, others at 1,000 or 1,500. TLR has designated flash as under 2,000 words.
But length is not the only difference.
For me, when I read submissions for the journal, and although I’m always looking for great writing, I’m also aware of different goals for flash and short stories. For flash the primary goal is usually a single narrative impact, a revelation that’s set up primarily through irony of plot. That’s not to say that a short story can’t exhibit such a revelation—many good ones do—but in the case of the short story, it’s plot and character that lead to the surprising yet inevitable ending.
To create such an ending in flash, we don’t need to know so much about the characters. It’s the situation, the desire that readers identify with, not so much the character dealing with them, that lead to the ending. It’s the connection the writer is able to quickly establish with the reader that makes flash work. As an editor, I’m more willing to accept a certain amount of backgrounding or backstory, since the setup that makes the ending work must be completed within a short amount of space.
But a short story thrives on character, especially character change, and character is not so easily established. Creating a compelling character, someone whose desires and personality have been developed over a lifetime, simply can’t be written without the writer immersing herself in that life, and allowing the reader to also immerse, to experience what it’s like to live in that character’s skin for a while.
It’s a common failing in the short stories that I don’t move into the higher rounds of reading at TLR. Writers who may have been successful writing flash often use the same technique to establish characters. I’m disappointed when a writer provides a couple of paragraphs of backstory about the character, and hopes that’s enough for the reader to make a connection. It just doesn’t compare to letting the reader see the characters as they face the challenges of their lives.
In fact, the longer the piece the more character development a reader might expect. Take a look at the work of Alice Munro, one of the most celebrated short story writers alive. Did I say “short” stories? I can’t remember the last time I read one of her works that was less than 30 pages—and she goes deeper into character than just about any other author I’ve read since Saul Bellow. (In his day, Bellow’s “short” stories could be as long as 70+ pages.)
Personally, I think it’s pretty hard to create a complete character in a flash fiction, but critical in a short story. I hope writers will keep that in mind when they submit to us.