The publishing industry has birthed a new redundancy: the “short-short” story. Another common name for the genre is “flash fiction,” yet I don’t like this phrase as much. To “flash by” means to appear briefly and vanish without much of an impression, but if done well, stories of this kind can pack as much force as a tightly clenched fist—denser and more powerful for their brevity.
Short-shorts are traditionally less than 1,000 words. Some say 300, some 500; the devil says 666 is the limit. Usually the story focuses on one significant event with a small group of characters. Notice, though, that all this academic chatter leaves a wide gap for the writer to fill. As a self-appointed Grand Poobah of short-short fiction—I have, after all, published two whole pieces of it—I’ve worked out a few guidelines for the flash-by story:
1. Keep in mind that certain genres require backstory to set up their plots. Start your sci-fi short-short in the middle of a pitched space-opera battle between the Vulcans and the New Deal Democrats, and it will come off like a Star Wars trailer with no context. Likewise, the bloody body in the first sentence of your mystery short-short often isn’t that compelling if you can just scroll to the bottom of the page to find out the murderer’s identity.
2. To keep your short-short afloat, leave out word-suckers like the setting. A short-short has to depend on the reader to fill in many of the details: sky color, architecture, trees, character’s clothing, furniture, etc. You should only include setting details pertinent to the reader’s understanding, such as whether the action takes place in a house, on a deserted highway, or at Wal-Mart. Let those words alone provide the framework, and the reader’s mind does the rest.
3. Give only an impression of characters’ natures. Like setting, characters can take up a lot of room. Show their personalities with dialogue, action, and internal thought, rather than using too much direct description. And if you have few characters, it might be good to leave out their names and identify them by roles and relationships instead (“the sister,” “the babysitter”) to avoid a jumble for the reader to sort out.
4. Show a willingness not to conclude the story. Because of the story’s limited space, it’s rare to find a short-short that covers an entire event from A to Z, with an exhaustive conclusion explaining the characters’ fates. A smaller story often contains an epiphany or moment of recognition, a change in consciousness midway through an experience, or an abrupt event whose ultimate consequences are left to the reader’s imagination.
With that advice in mind, you might try reading my story “Places Deserted” (821 words), which appeared in The Rusty Nail earlier this year. You can find a link to it under the “My Work” tab at the top.
How many “rules” did I violate, in your judgment? Try it, and comment. Step up, step up, and take a swing at the Poobah!
Then let me know: When do you think it would be a good idea to break those rules in a short-short piece?
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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