The History of Flash Fiction
In the age of “Twitterature”, the origin of flash fiction is often not given much thought other than Hemingway’s well- known: “for sale: baby shoes, never worn”. Through the simplicity of the genre, flash fiction can expose a striking depth into human emotion and experience. Therefore, it made sense that before flash fiction was embedded as a professional genre of creative writing, it came from the fables and parables told to us as children.
For this post, I decided to include some of my favourite parables and fables to highlight a key theme of flash fiction: imparting wisdom, or a truth, that leaves readers thinking.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf (Greek)
An incredibly popular fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf teaches the value of truth. The well-known story details the mischief of a young boy who frequently tricks his village by raising the alarm of a wolf attack on the sheep. Each time, the villagers prepare to defend the sheep, only to find the young boy has fooled them. Eventually, a wolf does attack the village flock, but despite the young boy raising the alarm, the villagers do not come. The wolf kills all the sheep and, in later editions, the boy himself. The moral is clear: those who lie will be unkindly rewarded and, even when they do tell the truth, they will not be believed.
Urashima Taro (Japanese)
This Japanese fable was introduced to me by a friend learning Japanese. It details the events of a fisherman named Urashima Taro who one day saves a turtle from danger when he was fishing. As a reward, he is allowed a trip underwater to visit the kingdom of the Dragon God. The princess of the kingdom presents Urashima Taro with a box and tells him that as long as he does not open it, he will remain happy. Inevitably, Urashima Taro opens the box when he returns to land. The fable teaches its readers the importance of obedience and restraint, especially in the face of happiness.
The Little Match Girl (Danish)
The Little Match Girl is a miserable story. It details a young girl, potentially an orphan, who is poverty stricken. She sits at the side of the road trying to get warm as it snows around her. The young girl sells matches for a living, but people only ignore her as they pass by on their day. As it gets colder, she lights each of them one by one to feel warmth. As she lights her last match, she is filled with beautiful visions of her new journey into death, as flame and girl both die on the icy streets. The Little Match Girl is not filled with the cheery wisdom of Aesop, but instead exposes Western attitudes to poverty and work ethic. It comments on the unsustainability of the capitalist workload that has forced the young girl onto the streets in winter, whilst also confronting the moral obligation that we have as a community to not ignore those in need.
These examples are just three of my favourites. They are reminders for those writing flash fiction that at the origin of the genre is a desire to tell a truth. These fables were often around 1000 words each. The plot and metaphor in each of them are straightforward, they do not need to be explained to the reader. Flash fiction should, in even fewer words, attempt to reveal a truth that leaves the reader pondering over its message.