Flash Fiction and Communication

Julius Caesar

Saying or writing things short and to the point is often exceedingly difficult. Writing long somehow comes easy for us. For many among us, anyway. Including for me. Authors who manage to economize with words, to say the essence using few words, and to leave it to the reader to fill in the blanks and read between the lines (and words), have always impressed and challenged me. Ernest Hemingway's prose and economy of style in writing has impressed me from a very young age. But so does Marcel Proust, who used 3000+ pages to say more or less the same as Hemingway did in one of his novels – I am currently reading "À la recherche du temps perdu" (In search of lost time) – which may say a lot about me. I am not certain where it leaves me though – an appreciator of the brief and to-the-point statement, on the one hand, or of the impossibly long and seemingly never-ending exploration of the result of eating a madeleine cookie, on the other hand. Maybe somewhere in between. At any rate, this may explain why I, like so many, find it hard to write brief.

What is flash fiction? It can be understood as fictional work of extreme brevity, but that still offers character and plot development. There are a number of variations or types: the six-word story, the 280-character story (twitterature), drible (minisaga, 50 words), drabble (microfiction, 100 words), sudden fiction (750 words), nanotale, and micro-story.

Hemingway composed, according to an urban literary legend or myth, a well-known example of flash fiction: "For sale, baby shoes, never worn" (Open Culture n.d.; Wikipedia n.d.b). Many others have tried their hand at this very difficult but so fascinating task.

Latin may have lent itself well to flash fiction (see Note 1). The best example is perhaps a phrase that is popularly attributed to Julius Caesar, being a very concise report to the Senate on the outcome of a battle he engaged his army in: "veni, vidi, vici" (I came; I saw; I conquered").

In literary analysis Caesar's report can be classified as an "isocolon", that is, a rhetorical scheme in which parallel elements possess the same number of words or syllables. Caesar's report can also be classified as a "hendiatris", that is, a figure of speech used for emphasis, in which three words are used to express one idea. The motto of the French Republic: "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" (freedom, equality, fraternity) is a good example. The same is the tripartite motto adopted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks for the Russian Revolution: "мир, земля, и хлеб" (peace, land, bread).

The longer forms of flash fiction, sometimes referred to as "short stories", are of course also interesting (see Sources). These longer forms are often different from the shorter forms in that they tend to be inspirational in focus, and not just presenting the elements of a story. As a child I devoured the maybe quintessential short stories that are known as Aesop's fables.

Myself I am rather partial to the very brief forms, maybe because I aspire to the possibly unlikely goal of being able to write like this. Also, brief flash fiction are akin to aphorisms, which are concise, terse, laconic, and/or memorable expression of a general truth or principle. Whether aphorisms are cases of flash fiction can possibly be debated. That aside, their brevity of expression certainly makes for a similarity with flash fiction. Consider also the Japanese variant, haiku, which has a lot in common with flash fiction. Over time it has been imported into the West, and several have tried their hand at composing text inspired by this age-old Japanese literary form. Another one of my favorite authors, Jack Kerouac, wrote this: "Snow in my shoe / Abandoned / Sparrow's nest."

Here are some examples of brief flash fiction with a beautiful and unexpected meaning or twist to them:

  • Those who had coins enjoyed the rain. Those who had notes were busy looking for shelter.
  • Man and God met. Both exclaimed: "My creator".
  • He was asked: “Are you a Hindu, a Christian, or a Muslim?”. He responded: “I am hungry”.
  • The fool didn't know it was impossible. So he did it.
  • "Wrong number", said a very familiar voice.
  • What if God asks you after you die: "So how was heaven?"
  • They told me that to make her fall in love I had to make her laugh. But every time she laughs, I am the one who falls in love.
  • We don't make friends anymore. We add them.


Now for broadening the argument somewhat. Flash fiction is a case of cultural and linguistic forms of written expression. As such we can assume that the details of these forms of written expression varies across cultures, in time as well as in space. I have alluded to a couple of examples of this, based on my own observation and experience. Flash fiction, broadly understood, including for example aphorisms, can conveniently be analysed and understood from the perspective of communication. I refer here to communication across or between cultures (inter-cultural communication), as opposed to communication within cultures (intra-cultural communication). The key question here is to what extent we can assume that the message sent, for example in the form of a case of flash fiction, is identical with the message received? I hold that we cannot necessarily assume this to be the case. If correct this assumption would also hold for individual words or expressions. Thus we have to resort to interpretation and translation, which may, at best, be understood as an exercise in approximation. A common problem often encountered in interpretation and translation is that what we really want to say is not possible to say in another language. In such cases one often resort to simply importing the un-translatable word into the text in the other language.

Over time this has led to many languages consisting of numerous words from other languages, most often found in the case of colonial powers – be it Arabic-, English-, French-, Portuguese-, Russian-, or Spanish-language – that result in words in their languages, or even the whole language, becoming imparted on languages and cultures in their former colonies. In the context of development cooperation this can lead to problems in that interpretation of cultural traits, values, and social issues, on the part of the donor or outsiders more generally, as based on interviews done in the colonial language or through reading texts, can be misleading. I may return to this issue in future Devblog article.

Lars T Soeftestad

(1) Languages can, I submit, be ranged along a scale as to how easily they lend themselves to constructing (extremely) short texts. While it may be difficult to separate the role of the language itself from the culture and mores of its speakers, I find this an interesting hypothesis. As an example, I find that both French and German lag behind English in this respect.
(2) Image credit: Julius Caesar. Ritratto di Gaio Giulio Cesare. Marmo bianco lunense, altezza totale 33 cm (il solo volto h. cm 21,5). Proveniente da Tusculum, vicino a Frascati, durante gli scavi di Luciano Bonaparte tra il 1804 e il 1820; entrò a far parte della collezione di Maria Cristina, regina di Sardegna, nel Castello ducale di Agliè (TO). Databile attorno al 50-40 a.C. Oggi è esposto al Museo di antichità di Torino, inv. 2098. Available in the Wikipedia article on Julius Caesar (see Sources).
(3) Permalink, URL: http://devblog.no/en/article/flash-fiction-and-communication
(4) This article was published 3 September 2018.

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Chernoff, Marc. n.d. "4 short stories that will change the way you think." URL: http://www.marcandangel.com/2013/05/21/4-short-stories-change-the-way-you-think/ (accessed August 2018.)
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Wikipedia. n.d.h. "Julius Caesar." URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Caesar (accessed August 2018.)