Short and shorter
Tips for learning to write successful short fiction
Published: July 4, 2012
What’s under 1,000 words, reads like a short story, and is popular all over the Web?
Several decades ago, if you asked about short-shorts, you were probably talking about an item of clothing that came to mid-thigh or higher. You can still find those advertised if you Google that term. But these days, at least some of the hits will direct you to a narrative form that bares it all in a minuscule space. The effects can be provocative, amusing, enigmatic ... exactly the same as with regular short fiction, but quicker.
Short-shorts have been around since the beginning of fiction, especially if you include short narrative lyrics, Aesop’s fables and Biblical stories. But they didn’t heat up as a narrative form in their own right until Robert Shapard and James Thomas’s anthology Sudden Fiction in 1986. There, under the banner of the new, were 70 narratives of 1-5 pages. Because of their quick impact, the original term was blasters, and the title Sudden Fiction carried from anthology to anthology in a growing series. Yet the name “short-shorts” stuck from the first anthology’s subtitle, American Short-Short Stories. Fiction workshops embraced the form, and it began to spread. As the form proliferated, it began to spawn smaller versions: flash fiction, which achieves its effects in about 500 words; micro fiction, which does the same in 250 (though these limits are hardly universally agreed on).
What’s the limit of vanishing returns? A Canadian magazine some years ago ran a fiction contest that restricted all entries to 69 words, and 55 is another formula that’s been tried. A recent Norton anthology, edited by Robert Swartwood, is called Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer. Hemingway is famous for supposedly constructing a short story in six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” The writing is probably apocryphal (Hemingway scholars have been unable to find evidence for it in any records of Papa), but the story remains in wide currency. The image is poignant, and haunting because it is incomplete: Are the shoes being sold because the infant died, or was the original purchase based on a hoped-for event that never happened? What do the shoes look like, who’s selling them, and in what state of mind? For everything left out, an image or narrative segment comes to mind.
What’s the point? you might ask. Or: What’s left? The point is not just to cram as much as possible into a line, though practicing the art of economy is always useful. Making a few words stand in for a whole is a powerful effect that any good poet knows: all of summer in a day, or the universe in a grain of sand. Here are some starting tips:
• Cut the opening, and get right to the point.
• Focus on the one telling detail, not a full description.
• Don’t “conclude,” but instead end with an action or an image.
If fiction is the art of representation, since you can never fit a whole world even into a multi-volume novel, then short-shorts are the same as regular-length fiction, only concentrated. In the next column, we’ll start talking about different approaches to achieving a lot in a small space.
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David Galef, the director of the creative-writing program at
Montclair State University, is a shameless eclectic, with more than a
dozen books out. His latest short-story collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman, is available now.