Short-shorts seem so simple. Also known by such names as sudden, flash or micro fiction, short-shorts are tight little tales packed into 1, 500 or so words. They can be powerful and memorable stories, the kind we’d all like to write. They’re so elegant in their brevity that we think, “Hey! I can write that!”
Unfortunately, simple elegance is seldom simple to achieve. Not in dress, not in scientific theories and not in short-short fiction. You discover how difficult it is to write when you sit down to write. The challenge—to make them appear as though they were dictated directly by the Muse—makes short-shorts so satisfying to write.
From Aesop to Kafka, Woolf to Borges, Updike to Oates, writers have always created brief tales that give a thoughtful thrill to reader and writer alike. Though short-shorts enjoyed great popularity in the mid-1900s, it was in the 1980s that the form gained even wider acceptance as a distinct form of literature. More and more writers began to use the short-short story to reveal the hidden, to accentuate the subtle, to highlight the seemingly insignificant or, as William Blake said in another context, “to see a world in a grain of sand.”
How short is short-short?
The short-short form is very demanding. You have a limit on the number of words you can use (as high as 2,000, or as low as 500 or even 100) depending on the publication or the contest. All “rules” of form, any form, can be seen as limiting, but they are also liberating. The achievement of desired effect within limitations can be exhilarating for both the reader and the writer.
Keep it focused
A short-short must remain simple, from conception through execution. Not simplistic, but simple. The key is to find a good point of entry by determining the point of the story in advance. Think of the point literally. Imagine that in any story you’d like to tell there’s a tiny point, a small jewel of hidden reality to polish into a brilliant fictional truth. Hold your focus on that small dot, that potent speck that can explode into truth and realization. Around that point, your story will germinate and come alive.
Many first short-shorts may have been written because the writer had disturbing or intriguing ideas that weren’t “big enough” for a short story or a novel. Because short-shorts are so compact, they emerge in higher relief than they would in a longer form. While many short-shorts rely on a sudden shock at the end—the victim turns out to be the aggressor, the man turns out to be a woman—the most enduring manage not merely to surprise us, but also to transcend their few words. They compound meaning by linking the surface story to layers that exist above, behind and beneath them.
Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics” illustrates this exceptionally well. His chilling story takes place in an apartment. We’re shown a nameless couple as the man is packing to move out. There’s no background on their troubles, no explanation of why the fight is taking place. We’re immediately drawn into the scene, which ends with an argument over who gets the baby. They are using the baby in a violent and literal tug-of-war. As the story ends, each of them pulling at the baby and the last line—“in this manner, the issue was decided”—recalls the Biblical story of King Solomon, who was called on to settle a similar conflict. The last line restates the point, but does not explicitly reveal what happens. Two characters, one location and a brief moment of time.
Charles Baxter’s “Scheherazade” is another complex “simple” story. Like Carver, Baxter draws from existing literature by naming his main character Scheherazade. Readers know that Scheherazade tells stories to please her king. But Baxter gives his story a simple setting: A modern-day hospital where Scheherazade’s husband is dying. Aging Scheherazade must keep her husband’s spirits up by once more lying to him, by creating pleasing fictions. Baxter draws on the familiar (the hospital setting) and creates the echo of complexity by tapping into an old and timeless story. His story transcends its few words by creating a story where lying is surely the right thing to do and calls into question our usual assumptions that lying is wrong. Baxter shows us that Scheherazade still lives in modern times and is still creating her famous fictions. In this powerful story, Baxter gives his readers a simple wedding of elements: something old, something new, something borrowed and something disturbingly true.
Remember the central point
The writer needs to make sure that every element links to the kernel of truth the story contains. Unlike in longer fiction, everything in a short-short has to link to that central point. All the elements of the actions that characters take must be absolutely clear so that readers can focus on the point of the story. Writers must spend the time and the words to link to every element of the story: links among the elements and links to the reader’s understanding. To stay within the constraints of the short-short form, limit the elements the story requires.
The trick, then, as you attempt to write your own short-shorts, is to create stories that are simple enough to maintain brevity, but complex enough to resonate with the reader. You can go a long way toward writing effective short-short stories by keeping two basic principles in mind:
- Determine the point of the story in advance.
- Limit the story to one time, one place and very few characters, and link every element to the central point.
With short-shorts, writers have the satisfaction of knowing that their stories are devoured whole and that the impact they have is often instantaneous and powerful. Disturbing, thought-provoking or funny, well-written short-shorts stay with the reader and often merit rereading.
In addition, these small, highly focused stories can be carried in our heads while they’re refined, and the first drafts can be written in a single sitting. Of course the initial drafts require honing and sharpening, but that, too, can be done in one or more single sittings . . . after the kids have gone to bed or when you need to cleanse your palate of that darned novel. With practice, you too can show your readers “a world in a grain of sand.”
- Find a short story. Ideally, it should be a short story you’ve written, but because this is an exercise, you can use any one that you find. Remove all the elements that you can while allowing a story to remain. As you do this, be sure to remove all the words and phrases that refer to the (now missing) character, time or scene.
- Retell a familiar tale with a modern setting, a different point of view and as few elements as possible. For example, retell the Cinderella story from her stepmother’s point of view, or tell the story of Oz from the point of view of a befuddled Wizard, hounded by folks making impossible claims.
- Create a story from a familiar saying. Think, for instance, of sayings such as “running on empty,” “her jaw dropped” or “reaching the end of the line.” Try to imagine what the saying would be referring to if it were taken literally, as Alejo Carpentier did in “Journey to the Seed,” his story about ‘going to seed.” Perhaps imagine a person driving a car with an empty gas tank through a rough neighborhood. How does the car keep moving? What happens next? There are hundreds of familiar sayings, all begging to give birth to a short-short story.
–Reprinted with permission from author. Originally published in the February 2001 issue of Writer's Digest and was titled "A Short Course in Short-Short Fiction." It was then republished in Start Writing Now!: Your Introduction to the Writing Life and was titled "Simple Complexity: A Course in Short-Short Fiction."