In a Flash

By Virginia Parker Staat

“To write short nonfiction requires an alertness to detail, a quickening of the senses, a focusing of the literary lens, so to speak, until one has magnified some small aspect of what it means to be human.” ~ Bernard Cooper

How do we describe flash nonfiction? Author Carol Guess believes it is where compression meets passion. Lee Martin says it’s all about voice. In his article When Flash Nonfiction Strikes You, Michael Cohen writes, “Flash creative nonfiction is somewhere between the lyricism of poetry and the narrative potential of prose.”

Flash nonfiction is most often less than 500 words and short enough to fit on a single page. Others declare it to be between 17 and 120 words. James Johnson limits it to “six words, two commas, and a full stop.” An example would be Ernest Hemingway’s flash story: For sale, Baby shoes. Never Worn.

Compression is the goal of flash. There are no statements like “I remember” or setting scenes or plot building. In The Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, Dinty Moore explains, “the reader is not a hiker but a smoke jumper, one of those brave firefighters who jump out of planes and land 30 yards from where the forest fire is burning. The writer starts the reader at that spot, at the edge of the fire, or as close as one can get without touching the actual flame. There is no time to walk in.”

Flash is basically a micro essay, utilizing the same techniques and structures as in a longer piece. It is a story tightly knit with tangible sensory details in a single scene. In his article On the Power of Essayistic Compression in Flash Nonfiction, Dinty Moore writes, “Like poetry, flash often relies on the tiny detail, the single image, or some peculiarity of word choice or phrasing—small elements that carry a greater load than they might in a longer work.”

Flash can be informative, persuasive, personal… or any other sub-genre you choose. The trick to writing flash is to set your tone immediately. In her article “6 Essentials for Writing Flash Fiction and Nonfiction,” Gina Barreca explains, “in the flash form, you must select a tone and stick with it. This is a short ride. You can mix emotions—be amusing and nostalgic or hilarious and vicious—but you can’t throw all the emotions you’ve ever had into the word-blender and hit “liquefy.” 

Barreca continues, “the process can feel like stuffing a size-10 foot into a size-8 shoe, wedging a full-size person into a clown car, or at the very least, holding your breath to get that belt to cinch in just. One. More. Notch.”

And that’s it… in a flash.