Touchstone Editing logo
Contact Us

What’s the Difference Between Short Fiction, Flash Fiction, and Microfiction?

If I asked you to explain the difference between a novel and a short story, you’d easily be able to sum up the difference: a short story is, of course, much shorter than a novel. But once writers try to drill down further, they often get a bit confused. Is “flash fiction” just another term for “short story”? And what in the world is “microfiction”?

Let’s start with the largest category. A short story can be as short as a few words or as long as 20,000 to 30,000 words—which, you may notice, is a huge range. But most literary magazines won’t publish short stories longer than 10,000 to 15,000 words, and many will want you to stick to more like 4,000 to 6,000 words. Back when magazines and literary journals were exclusively published in print, there was an economic reason behind wanting shorter stories: it cost more to print something longer. But even now that most publications are digital, readers’ attention spans are still only so long. Thus, when submitting to magazines, shorter is often better.

So what’s shorter than a short story? Flash fiction.

“Flash fiction” (sometimes also called “short shorts” or “sudden fiction”) is a term used to refer to particularly short short stories. Simply put, flash fiction stories are typically defined as stories under 1,000 words. You’ll find the odd exception here and there—publications that will allow up to, say, 1,500 words—but by and large, 1,000 words is accepted as the maximum length of a flash fiction story.

Within the category of “flash fiction,” there’s also “microfiction.” If flash fiction stories are typically under 1,000 words, microfiction stories are even shorter. Typically, these are stories under 300 words, though publications will often have their own limits (such as accepting up to 500 words, or only accepting stories of exactly 100 words).

Keep in mind that despite their brevity, these are complete stories with a full arc. The idea is to pack a lot of punch into a very small story.

Consider one of the most famous microfictions ever written: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (This story is commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but we don’t actually know for sure who wrote it.) With the first two words, the author lets us know that this is a newspaper classified ad. The words “baby shoes” seem innocuous enough until you get to the final two, “never worn.” The author succinctly delivers a gut punch here, immediately conveying not only that the writer of the ad is a grieving parent whose child died, but also that they could use the extra cash. There’s no cliffhanger here, no “but I want to know more”—they told you everything you needed to know, made you instantly aware of this down-on-their-luck parent, and conveyed such a somber tone in such a short space that you’re left feeling a little shell-shocked. It’s a hell of a microfiction.

So far, we’ve gone short story > flash fiction > microfiction. It might help to instead think of short story categories from small to large. The tiniest stories are microfictions, the slightly longer ones are flash fictions, and then longer stories are just plain short stories. Put another way, it’s like squares and rectangles: all microfictions and flash fictions are short stories, but not all short stories are microfictions or flash fictions. And of course, any longer than a short story, and you’ve got a novella or novel.

Hopefully this helps clear up some confusion about “short story” versus “flash fiction” versus “microfiction” for you. Are there any other terms you’re confused about? Let us know in the comments!

No comments

Post a Comment: