It’s natural — even inevitable — to compare one means of expression, one form, one artistic approach with another. We compare to explain, to justify, to understand, to illuminate, to inspire. Flash fiction invites many such comparisons because it seems to lie outside what is traditionally promoted as fiction, even though the tradition of novels and short stories and, indeed, written fiction is itself quite young. In age — or youth — it is perhaps fairer to compare written fiction with photography and cinema than poetry, plays and storytelling.
Where a novel might be a full-length film, whether art house and understated or Hollywood and overblown, a short story takes us into the realm of cinematic shorts, anything from a few Vimeo minutes to a half-hour cinematic immersion. Against this, flash fiction is the animated GIF, the vine, the blipvert, a couple of YouTube minutes at most. The boundary between flash fiction and short stories is blurred at the upper end — by convention 1000 words is commonly accepted as the flash top floor, but it could just as easily be 750 or 1250 depending on who you talk to — but sharper at the lower end — the hundred-word precision of a drabble, the fifty-word drop of a dribble.
Unlike a film, however, a written story is static. A story has movement and time, but the breath of life comes from the reader as their eyes travel the words, sentences, ideas and characters. Photographs take in sweeping landscapes, family snaps, posed portraits, street moments, taken with anything from what you happen to have in your pocket to cameras whose price tag will empty your pocket and more, cropped, tinted, processed or left alone to tell their story. The word flash also suggests the illumination of a moment in all its depth, relying on the viewer to see the motion and larger world in a photograph in their mind.
Photographs can be sharp and richly detailed HDR images, just as stories can be lush with description and detail, taking in big plots and panoramas, everything in focus. But a photographer can also choose to single something out with a shallow depth of focus that leaves everything outside the focal plane blurred and set apart, trading pixel perfect fidelity and completeness for contrast and separateness, the subject of interest accentuated all the more.
In photography the out-of-focus quality is known as bokeh, derived from the Japanese boke (ボケ) meaning blur or boke-aji (ボケ味) meaning blur quality. With poor bokeh the blurring of detail is a distraction and does not serve the picture well; with good bokeh it makes the picture.
So it is with flash fiction.
Across a handful of words a story is drawn, the greater world it lives in no more than suggested, at best sketched. The context for a given piece of flash fiction lacks the detail and focus given to the story in the foreground. But this blurring, this incompleteness and implication, this necessary and greater elaboration in the mind of the reader must serve to support the story all the more. It has a very particular quality to it that distinguishes it from longer forms: good flash fiction has good bokeh.