While paging through our 1946 volume of The Writer, a story caught our eye. Called “Short Short Picnic” and offering advice for short-short fiction authors, it was written by Ruth-Ellen Storey, a writer whose byline has appeared in a number of “leading slick magazines,” according to her article bio.
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We often think of flash as a relatively new addition to the fiction scene, but this simply isn’t the case: Though Storey never references the word “flash,” she defines short-short fiction precisely: “written within the limits of 1,000 to 1,500 words or, in the case of vignettes, 500 words.”
“A short-short story is a short short story,” she writes. “Just exactly that. It isn’t an enlarged incident, it isn’t an anecdote…it is a story.”
So how do you tell a complete story in just 1000 words? Storey has some surprisingly timeless tips to share:
Write your short story as if you were running out of gas.
“First, make up your mind exactly where you are going to go,” Storey suggests. In a piece of short fiction, you don’t have the luxury of narrative detours.
“You haven’t any gasoline (words) to waste, and you are compelled to keep on the broad highway. No turning down that road on the left, the one that meanders through the trees in the valley. It promises a delightful lane of enchantment, a thoroughfare for romancing and, you argue, it will get you to your destination eventually,” she writes.
“But it is not for you this trip. Uh-uh. You keep to the highway with your eyes on the goal.”
Start short-short fiction as close to the climax as possible.
“From necessity of word limitations, you pick up your characters as near as possible to the moment of climax, sketching in only what you must of the past action as they move through the climax to the ending,” Storey instructs. Flash is not a place for lengthy backstory or slow build; the writer must cut to the heart of the story immediately.
“When you have sprung the twist and added the final period, your reader must know that things are going to be far different with your characters from here on; they have acted toward their problem and they or their plans have gone through a decided change,” she writes.
“In other words, you have written a story.”
Creating an inevitable yet surprising ending requires advanced planning.
Storey admits the ending is one of the most difficult parts of writing short-short fiction. “The reader must be surprised speechless” at the ending, “but he must also be convinced!”
“That inevitable ending must be in sight from the very first word you put down on paper. And right here let me say that for downright thinking-it-out-loud-ahead-of-time, the short-short takes the prize,” she cautions. “You must be sure of where you are going, and above all, you must bear clearly in mind the effect you wish the story to have on your reader.”
“Think it through before you begin to write, and in that way you can avoid writing a single word which does not lead directly toward the desired effect at the end.”
An ending must surprise readers throughout the story, not cheat them.
“Surprising the reader does not mean fooling him. Fooling a reader is the unforgivable sin,” Storey writes. “You will plant clues and cover them up quickly; you will go into the consciousness of one character and see the problem from his angle, thus throwing it slightly out of focus; you will hold back crumbs of information which would normally and naturally be withheld by the characters – but you will never deliberately cheat on your reader.”
“When he has finished reading the story,” she writes, “he must realize that it was all there for him to see from the word ‘go’, and he must be convinced that it could not have ended in any other way.”
You will know dozens of details about your character that will never make it into the story.
“Your characters must come to life,” Storey instructs, but she recognizes this development comes with a deft hand: “With so few words, you can’t – and you shouldn’t – try to make them really rounded. You only need to spotlight that side of their characters which they are proving in this small glimpse of their lives.”
But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to know more than that small glimpse: “You, the writer, know what they eat for lunch and if they pick their teeth afterward; you know if they tune in on the Symphony Hour and if they throw rocks at the neighbors’ cats and why,” she says. “None of that will go into your story…But the reader will get the rest.”
“Yes, a short-short story is a short short story,” Story concludes. “They are not easy to write – not nearly so easy as this telling you how to do it. But they are fun.”
For more on flash fiction, read our guide to writing short-short stories here. You can also submit the fruits of your labors to this flash journal.