On April 20, 2009, my essay “Hint Fiction: When Flash Fiction Because Just Too Flashy” was published at Flash Fiction Chronicles. That website no longer seems to exist, which means the essay has disappeared into the Internet void, so I’m reprinting it here for those interested.

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Flash fiction isn’t anything new. It’s been around for a long time. Why it’s becoming more prominent and popular today is because of this nifty digital age in which we now live. Modern men and women have established severe forms of ADD — they don’t like to sit still for extended periods of time, and looking at long lines of text on a computer screen … forget it. Twitter just proves this new disorder by giving 140-character updates of just about anything — there is even an online magazine published in the Twitter format and one author has even begun to serialize his novel using the application. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next year or two a new service is invented, a complete knock-off of Twitter, that displays updates of only 70-characters, because, let’s face it, 140-characters is just TOO MUCH.

Actually, the question I want to present now isn’t what’s too much.

It’s what too little.

Nearly everyone is familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

The legend of where this piece came from varies in detail, but basically Hemingway was challenged to write a story in just six words; he came back the next day with that little ditty.

Now do those six words constitute a story?

Some people think so; some don’t.

Some argue that there is no protagonist, no conflict, no beginning, middle, end.

Some argue that you don’t necessarily NEED a protagonist, conflict, a beginning, middle, end to make a story.

What is a story, after all? I’m not going to try to debase it by dissecting its Merriam-Webster definition. Everyone has their own skewed opinion of what it means.

Some are hardcore traditionalists who require the beginning, middle, end, protag, conflict, the whole nine yards. To them if any of those pieces are missing, then it’s not a true story.

Others are more lax. They understand inference plays a great deal. After all, imagination is key, but at what point does a writer depend too much upon a reader’s imagination?

Personally, I’ve always believed a writer should try to find a strong middle ground in his or her storytelling — a place where they can meet the reader halfway, just giving enough detail that the reader’s imagination is then able to fill in the rest. Those, I believe, are the best type of stories, because the reader truly becomes engaged in the process.  

Good flash fiction demands this of its readers. It only gives so much, enough that the reader can fill in the blanks, help finish the painting, and then, at the end, can marvel at its brilliance. 

But what about those really, really, really, really, REALLY short stories? The, you know, six-word stories. Are they considered flash fiction? If not, what should we call them?

Me, I want to coin a phrase, so I’m going to do it here and now: those very, very, very, VERY short stories should be called Hint Fiction. Because that’s all the reader is ever given. Just a hint. Not a scene, or a setting, or even a complete character sketch. They are given a hint, nothing more, and are asked — nay, forced — to fill in the blanks. And believe me, there are a lot of blanks.

What is the word limit of Hint Fiction? Well, if a drabble is 100 words, and a dribble is 50 words, then how about we say Hint Fiction cannot be anything more than 25 words.

One of the biggest hints in Hint Fiction is the title. It’s like the setup to a joke, and the “story” is the punch line. Without the one, the other won’t work.

For those of you wrinkling your noses right now, try to relate this to abstract art. Is a painting of a pink toilet with a chinchilla crouched on top art? You’re probably thinking no, but I guarantee you there is a select few who would pay thousands for such a piece.

Here’s another question: Is Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night art? 

Almost all of you will probably agree that yes, it is. And why do you think this? Because ever since your very first art class in school you were told that it was art. You were told that van Gogh was a genius and that The Starry Night is one of his masterpieces.

Let’s face it, art is subjective. Either we like it or we don’t. The same goes with flash fiction and, now that I’ve coined the term, Hint Fiction. We can argue about Hemingway’s six-word story, or any Hint Fiction story, until we’re blue in the face. In the end we won’t change others’ minds. We know what we know and we think what we think and nothing is going to change that.

If you haven’t realized it yet, I’m far from being a staunch traditionalist. I like trying new things. I think writers should be encouraged to try new things. It’s not always going to work, of course, but at least you tried, and that’s the important part.

As Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  

Now go out there and spread the good word about Hint Fiction.

Just remember to tell them who sent you.