The Brief Story of Microfiction

The way I see it, microfictions are very short stories which (like any good writing) have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but tell their story in as few words as possible – usually in a paragraph, or a page or two. When I talk about microfiction, I incorporate the terms flash fiction, short shorts, postcard fiction, sudden fiction and even prose poetry, using it as an umbrella to cover all shorter stories. Some are firm about the division between prose poetry and microfiction, but given that the forms are so closely linked, and so similar in their purpose, I will discuss them together here. So, how did it all start, and where is it going?

The Theory
With links to haiku and haibun, ketai and Twitter literature (Twitlit), microfiction has a surprisingly long history, and a changeable present. Haiku has a strong, and older, influence on microfiction, because the form encourages the writer to use tightly restrained language, but at the same time reach a moment of change or epiphany. Haibun is a combination of prose and haiku – almost echoing the purpose of the paradoxical prose poem. Ketai and Twitlit are both forms of microfiction which have evolved to suit technology, the former being stories that fit into a mobile phone text message, and the latter stories which can fit the obligatory 140 characters of Twitter feeds. In fact, microfiction has close links with the internet and online publications, probably because they are so easy to read in one go.

But despite a long history in China and Japan (where they can be known as “palm-sized” stories or “smoke-long” stories), Latin America and some parts of Europe, microfiction only came to prominence in the UK as its popularity rose in the USA in the twentieth century. Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Margaret Atwood all used the form, with Hemingway creating the famous six word short: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In some American bookstores, you might even find a microfiction section. In the UK, I doubt you would, but microfiction is certainly on the rise, and has been published in collections and anthologies for a few decades. Perhaps the microfiction section is only moments away. British writers such as Dan Rhodes have had considerable success writing microfiction; surprising, maybe, for a form only lately given the credit and cachet it deserves. In fact, microfiction now has grown so important that the Bridport Prize organisers have created a special category solely for flash fiction submissions.

Interest in the form is also apparent  in Wales. Richard Gwyn’s delightful collection of prose poems, Walking on Bones, is now ten years old, although these intricate tales of the more mundane aspects of life were found confusing by some at the time, when prose poetry had less recognition. The Western Mail reprinted a prose poem of Gwyn’s in its Poetry Corner, and an angry reader sent in a letter of complaint that the piece should not have been included there, because it didn’t rhyme. Yet years later, when a microfiction of mine was published in the same place, there was no response. It seems that back then, microfiction and prose poetry didn’t have a definite place in the literary world. But now, I think that microfiction has earned its place as a literary form with function and a purpose: to tell a story in a restrained form. Competitions and microfiction anthologies have more prominence in the UK and in Wales now, too, with Welsh publishers such as Leaf and Cinnamon giving writers a chance to play with the form, and a new collection of Gwyn’s (Sad Giraffe Café) has just been published. Perhaps microfiction's not as new as it may seem – think of parables and fables, for example – but it’s become a genre all of its own.

The Practice The thing about microfiction is that a good example seems simple: easy to write, and easy to read. A perfect microfiction has a significance more often associated with poetry, but must balance its poetic moments with the weight of prose. That’s not easy; in fact, much like any writing, it’s hard. Good microfiction shows a whole world in miniature, a character’s life story in a microcosm, or what could have been the plot of a novel in a nanosecond. There’s much to condense, much left unspoken to the point that the writer makes a pact with the reader: you will not be told everything, you will guess and then, in return, be allowed to interpret the stories as you wish. The language used is often sparse and precise; a rhythm is usually incorporated which is compacted into minimalism, making the stories sit on a knife-edge between what is told and what is assumed. Richard Gwyn also suggested that there should be a lightness and an energy to microfiction, and often this goes hand in hand with its precision.

Sometimes surreal and sometimes comical, dark or bright, the content of microfiction is never prescribed. You can write about anything – just make sure it has a point. This is an extremely pertinent lesson to learn: even if you write microfiction which isn’t that good, the difficulty in crafting it may well help you to understand your creative process further. That makes it relevant to the way we write, too: it can be an exercise, a way to describe one small but wholly significant moment, or a way to write poetically but within a prose form. Up for a challenge? Well then, give it a go.

Holly Howitt