Duotrope defines flash as fiction under 1,000 words. Wikipedia states the word count can be anything below 1,000 (with a sweet spot between 300 and 1,000 words). There are also other names for shorter fiction such as sudden fiction, drabbles, and microfiction. Where does the madness end?
Most sources agree that flash contains an actual story in short form – a marked contrast to a vignette, which captures a particular moment but does not contain a plot. Rather, it illustrates a character, tone, or mood. While flash also may focus on a moment, that moment uses elements of a complete story – meaning a protagonist, a conflict, and a resolution. However, the short word count may mean these elements are hinted rather than expressly written. While a vignette may simply fill out a character by showing them in a particular moment, flash may use a moment to capture the essence of the story.
Certainly, installments in series can and have been considered flash, if they stand as stories in their own right. If they are part of a larger story and cannot be understood outside the larger context, then they would probably be more accurately described as chapters or installments.
However, would well-known flash stories even be considered flash under the above definition? Ernest Hemingway, arguably one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century, claimed to have written flash fiction. But does his flash actually fit the requirements?
For sale: baby shoes, never worn
by Ernest Hemingway
Is this a complete story? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Is it flash? A vignette? Micro-fic? Certainly a story can be read between the lines. It HINTS at a story, but what? Is it about a couple who have lost a child and are ready to move on? Were a pair of shoes given as a gift but not wanted? Could it be about a child who grew too big to fit into his shoes? The reader joins the author in telling the story, but what story is actually being told is ambiguous at best.
None of it really matters. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, and short fiction – be it flash or otherwise – may entertain under any label. Write well, write often, and write whatever flash fiction you feel the muse demands of you.
~ Catherine Russell