You’re probably familiar with long form fiction (i.e. novels and novellas), short form fiction (i.e. short stories), and flash fiction (i.e. very short stories). But have you heard about the novella-in-flash trend that’s sweeping the literary landscape?
Novellas-in-flash are gaining in popularity, with more and more writers trying them out to stretch their creative muscles; there are even a few prestigious awards specifically aimed at novella-in-flash writers. We’ll show you everything you need to know about this distinctive literary form, with some tips on creating your very own novella-in-flash.
What is a novella-in-flash?
A novella-in-flash is a collection of short independent segments that together form a cohesive narrative arc. Each of these “flash” segments will normally be under a thousand words, and can also stand alone as a short story or vignette. Segments may be tied together by a common character or group of characters, location, or event.
This is a little bit different than a standard collection of flash fictions or short stories. In most short story collections, each narrative is linked by a common theme. However, they won’t necessarily be intrinsically related to each other in other ways. In a novella-in-flash, the separate flash fictions come together to create a bigger story.
Why is the novella-in-flash form so popular?
Novellas-in-flash are a form that’s innately challenging—they encourage you to stretch those writers’ muscles to the limit—as well as uniquely rewarding. They allow you to do quite a bit of interesting stuff in quite a compact space. Through a novella-in-flash, you can examine a story from multiple angles, time periods, or perspectives.
You can think of a novella-in-flash as a cumulative artistic medium similar to a quilt, stained-glass window, or garden. In a cumulative work of art, each individual piece is complete and beautiful by itself. When viewed together, they suddenly become a cohesive and more nuanced whole. Writers (and readers!) love the flash novella form because it creates a mosaic, kaleidoscopic effect that you don’t quite get from any other form of writing.
How long should a novella-in-flash be?
The word count of a novella-in-flash can vary quite broadly; across the board, they range from about 5,000 words to 40,000 words. Each publication outlet or contest has its own preferred word count range. For example, the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award states entries must be between 6,000 and 18,000 words, while the Reflect Press Novella Award (which encourages novellas-in-flash) asks for between 15,000 and 40,000 words. In general, it seems that 10,000 to 20,000 words is the ideal spot for a novella-in-flash.
This means aiming for roughly 15—20 short short stories, or chapters, of between 500 and 1000 words. Remember—flash fiction refers strictly to stories under 1,000 words, though some can be much shorter.
If your story goes on for longer than 40,000 words, you have a novel-in-flash. These are less common because it can become a bit challenging to follow this choppy flash fiction format for a sustained amount of time. Novellas-in-flash have gained a lot of popularity because they’re the perfect length for an extended story told in this way without feeling chaotic.
How to write your own effective novella-in-flash
Ready to join the new wave of flash fiction writers and start writing a novella-in-flash? Here are some tips to kickstart your creative writing process.
1. Choose a unifying thread
The biggest mistake new flash fiction writers make when assembling a novella-in-flash is forgetting the unifying thread—the thing that ties the segments together into a cohesive story. This might be a protagonist or group of protagonists, a particular setting, or a major event such as a festival, natural disaster, celebration, or competition.
Note that something’s missing here: theme. You hear writers banging on about theme quite a lot as a unifying thread in fiction. In a novella-in-flash, however, theme isn’t enough to create a coherent plot. If your flash fictions are tied together by theme and nothing else, it’s not a novella in flash—it’s a collection of short stories.
Remember, your assembled small fictions need to fit together into some sort of story arc, even if the characters, conflicts, or settings aren’t the same in each one. This means identifying the common factor that pulls your linked narratives together and maintaining it from beginning to end.
2. Consider your characters
A novella-in-flash shouldn’t be a collection of vignettes, or unresolved moments in time. A good novella-in-flash—like any good story—should highlight the character development of your protagonist. A reader wants to see that the hero has changed in some fundamental way: either learning and growing to become better, or devolving into a tragic cautionary tale about the consequences of bad choices.
Just like when writing a standard novel, your characters should have needs, desires, internal conflicts, external obstacles, and things that drive them forward into the events of the plot. Although your novella-in-flash may focus on different characters or sets of characters at a time, there should be a sense that they have all undergone a journey in between the opening story and the closing one.
Whether you’re writing short fiction or long-form fiction, a complex and engaging main character will always be what holds the reader’s attention and makes them invest in your work.
3. Keep your chronology clear
When working with flash fiction, there’s often a temptation to creatively bend and barrel through the rules of linear time. This can be thrilling and marvelously effective, as long as you don’t lose your reader along the way.
For instance, you might begin your novella-in-flash at the end of the story and work backwards, or jump back to the beginning and show the events that led up to tat moment. Or, you might have two reflective storylines—one that starts at the beginning, and one that starts at the end, thundering towards each other with irrevocable momentum. You could also alternate between more than one timeline, such as the present moment and the protagonist’s memories.
These can all be ways to craft a powerful and unusual story—but if your reader becomes muddled and isn’t sure where/when/who they are, the meaning behind your brilliance becomes lost. As you go, see if you can benchmark ways to make it very clear when in time you are at any given moment. Getting beta reader feedback on your finished manuscript is also a great way to fine tune your chronology through an outside perspective.
Examples of novellas-in-flash
One of the best things an aspiring flash fiction writer can do is read other works of flash fiction, and in particular novellas-in-flash, to get a sense of how these narrative structures are put together.
A famous early example of a novella-in-flash is Maud Martha, a 1953 novel by the American poet Gwendolyn Brooks. You can see Brooks’ poetic background in the prose poetry flash fictions, which each stand alone as a short story but also fit together to create a larger story arc of a Black woman trying to fit into an elitist white society.
Another example is the 2011 novel We the Animals, the debut novel by Justin Torres, which appeared just as the novella-in-flash form was beginning to grow in popularity. It follows three brothers growing up in the 1980s in New York.
Now, new flash novellas are being published all the time. A great place to go for inspiration is the shortlists and longlists of novella-in-flash competitions (which we’ll look at more below).
Where to submit a polished novella-in-flash
More and more publishers are opening doors to novellas-in-flash as the medium becomes more popular and familiar to readers. There are even contests specifically for uncovering the next great novella-in-flash work!
A couple we mentioned above are the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and the Reflect Press Novella Award. The former is specifically for novellas-in-flash, while the Reflect Award welcomes flash fiction novellas alongside more traditional novellas. There’s also the National Flash Fiction Day Novella-in-Flash competition, which welcomes entries between 6,000 and 12,000 words. All of these contests offer publication as part of their prize winnings.
Ad Hoc Fiction and Rose Metal Press are two respected indie presses that embrace the flash novella form (Ad Hoc Fiction was a finalist for Small Press of the Year!). If your flash novella is on the shorter side (under 10,000 words), you can also aim for literary journals—some accept longer short stories leaning towards novella length.
If you’re looking for inspiration, we have a weekly newsletter featuring literary magazines and small presses waiting to read your work!
Start experimenting with new forms and new ideas
The novella-in-flash is an ever-evolving form that appeals to both the prose fiction writer and the poet because it combines brevity and sensuality with an engaging narrative arc. It allows you to experiment with time, place, character, and plot structure in exciting new ways—essentially, break all the rules with enough confidence and style that it pulls together and works. Now, with these tips and tricks, you can hit the blank page running.