While some condense a whole story, as Hemingway did, others choose to illustrate just a scene, e.g., DJ Paterson’s “I stared into her lifeless eyes.” We still get a sense of the story but it’s a moment in time, often the scenario of flash fiction.
For less brevity, there are stories of 55, favoured in the US, and 60 words in the UK. Although these are micro fiction, we can still learn a lot about a character – you’d usually only have one or two in a piece that length – and their dilemma.
Twitter fiction is also incredibly popular. You have a maximum of 140 characters to tell your story, and that includes spaces. This paragraph up to “spaces” has 127.
Flash fiction usually has a maximum of 500 words (about an A4 typed sheet or two A4s handwritten), although some places are more generous and allow up to 1,000 words. In short stories, every word counts, much more so than in a novel and when you’re only given a few hundred to play with, it certainly makes you more aware of getting your story across succinctly.
There are three key elements to a story: character, plot and location. You’d usually need the first two in any length, even micro fiction, but you don’t have to have a location. Having a setting helps readers get a sense of place (literally) but unless it’s vital to the plot, you can leave it out. In fact, if it’s well written, you may not even notice the lack of setting. On the other hand, you can make the most of an unusual location, especially if it impacts on the character and plot, e.g., having someone in a country where they don’t speak the language. You have your dilemma before adding any further complications.
Like any writing, see if you can find a new angle on a well-worn theme. Depending on who you listen to, there are only so many plots to choose from. After all, West Side Story is a modern retelling of Romeo & Juliet, and it’s still going strong on the London stage.
I write a short story a day for my blog’s 5pm fiction slot and they are mostly less than 500 words (mainly because I have to write so frequently) and while many could go on to make longer pieces, they are generally self-contained snapshots of life, sometimes extreme life, but that’s the joy of fiction: you can do whatever you like to whoever you like… and it’s legal.
Short fiction has always been the baby sister (or brother) to novels, and while novels will probably always be the main crowd pleaser, electronic devices such as the Kindle and mobile phones have brought new life to short stories. I, for one, will keep doing what I love, writing my story a day, and see where technology, and our characters, take us next.
Tell us about your writing. What’s the shortest piece you’ve ever written?