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Liking Little Things: Dissecting Short Stories and Flash Fiction

This past Friday, @tordotcom tweeted a fun challenge asking for six-word fantasy stories. Like all such challenges, it’s inspired by (what I consider to be) the best short story ever written (supposedly by Ernest Hemingway to win a bet):

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This challenge got me thinking about what it takes to write a great short story or flash piece, which I think is especially relevant to anyone writing in the science fiction, fantasy or horror genres. Basically, if we write short stories or flash fiction, odds are we’re writing in genre for the simple reason that there aren’t many markets outside of the genres for us to sell to. The literary journals are few and far between, literary anthologies tend to reprint old stories written by past masters, and there just don’t seem to be that many places for us to place something that isn’t a genre story. So given all of this, what does it take to write a great genre short story?

If they are successful, shorts can pack the emotional punch of a novel into a space one tenth the size. I find it hard not to appreciate the economy – the discipline – that demands. If you’re bumping up against your publisher’s 2000 or 3000 word cap, every single word matters. Of course, we like to think that every word in a novel matters too…but the fact is they don’t. They should, but with the reality of deadlines and the challenge of completing the novel-writing marathon, some poor constructions just squeak through the editorial cracks. It happens to every writer, good and great included. It’s just the way it works. But short fiction – whether short stories or the relatively nascent form of flash fiction – does not have that luxury.

Artistic Techniques of Good Short Stories

The Reader’s Investment Our reader is always going to be less invested in a ten-page, 2000-word story than the two-hundred page, 100,000-word novel they’re halfway into. If at any point our short story loses their interest, our reader might say “Screw it, this story sucks” and go back to playing Fallout. What have they lost? With a short story, a very small amount of time. Short stories are a lot less forgiving as a form, in relation to their length. As I write, I always try to remember:

  • Writing is re-writing. Revise the story with the eye of a zealot. Trim all of the fat we can find.
  • Big things are made of smaller things. For each act, each character, each paragraph, each sentence, we should ask ourselves: is this really needed? Can we say this more economically?
  • Don’t fear the delete key. It can be tough to cut something we’ve written. But whatever tightens the story, strengthens it.

Limited Cast of Characters We’ve all read the massive epics that require a dramatis personae either before or after the text to keep track of the cast of characters. Ever seen a short story with one? I always try to think about this in terms of:

  • Purpose. Any character (certainly any named character) in our story has to serve a specific thematic or plot purpose. He or she needs to perform some action, and every action adds words to our length. To keep it tight, we should limit these characters and their actions to that which is essential to the story.

Limited Perspective Each time we shift perspective, we have to pull the reader out of the character they have already invested in and convince them to re-invest elsewhere. Sometimes, this is necessary. But it should be used very judiciously. I usually think about:

  • Speed. Perspective is the key to getting our reader invested in our character and the world we create. We should grab our reader quickly and hold onto him or her throughout the story.
  • Narrative Voice. Who is our narrator? Can we tell the story from a first-person perspective? Can we give our narrator a distinct voice, spicing it with opinions/values to rapidly build our world around our reader?
  • Use of the First-Person. A great trick for maximizing speed is to tell our story from a first-person perspective. When we read something from an “I”-perspective, it instantly puts us in the character’s head, instantly builds the character’s world around us.

Limited Plot I love Byzantine side-plots, with twists and turns and double-agents and triple-crosses and all that fun stuff. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the space to cram a lot of that complexity into our short stories.

  • Choose your battles. Pick the plot arc that is most important to our story and its themes. Stick with that.
  • High stakes yield high emotion. If we want our reader to be invested in our story, the stakes at play must matter to our characters. If they don’t care, if they are not invested, why should our reader be?

The Ongoing Dialog in Letters Every editor is looking for stories that are “new” and “fresh.” Genre fiction pre-supposes some reader familiarity with its history and tropes. Back in January, Jo Walton posted a great piece on about the concept of “reading protocols”, which should be required reading for anyone writing or editing in genre. For our short story to be fresh it has to be one step ahead of what the best writers are producing today. To figure out what that is, we need to:

  • Know our markets. This is more than just reading submission guidelines carefully. It means following what the best writers are producing today.
  • Track trends. What are the over-saturated sub-genres in the marketplace? Seeing too many vampires, too much steampunk, too much “insert-trope-here”? Use what we see to stake a new claim.
  • Learn editorial preferences. Each editor has different tastes. By reading her submission guidelines, by tracking what else she buys, and by submitting different stuff of our own to her, we can (over time) learn what her tastes are.

The Rise of On-screen Reading As the markets for short fiction increasingly go online-only, odds are people will read our short story on a screen rather than a page. This fact has tremendous implications for how we construct our story: have you ever tried to read a 200-word paragraph on screen? Did you get through it all? Reading on screen is (for better or for worse) different than reading on paper, and it does affect how we should write our stories:

  • Use shorter paragraphs. They are easier to read on-screen, and they force a certain economy of thought into our writing, thus contributing to the story’s overall tightness.
  • Use clearly delineated sentences. This is another trend in English literature championed by Hemingway. Clarity in sentence construction is also a more economical use of words, and contributes to shorter paragraphs.
  • Avoid typographic chicanery. I love the poems of ee cummings. But in today’s short prose markets, there is precious little demand for typographic tricks of that nature. It takes a lot of work for a publisher to make complex typography display consistently across multiple different devices, browsers, screen resolutions, etc. Which is why if our story relies on typographic sleight of hand, it’ll be a much tougher sell.

The Economics of Good Short Stories

Competition in the Short Markets Two facts contribute to increased competition in the short fiction markets:

  1. The number of markets paying professional rates has shrunk. New markets are increasingly cropping up online, however the majority of them can afford to publish 2 – 4 short stories per month (as opposed to the 8 – 10 stories the old print magazines used to run).
  2. Computers and the Internet make writing easier. Everyone has one, and everyone (myself included) thinks they have a story or two in them. This means that slush piles today are larger than they were thirty years ago.

Thus, there are more stories out there fighting for fewer publishing spaces. And that’s just if we’re talking about slush: let’s not forget many published stories are solicited, by-passing the slush piles entirely. This makes short fiction an extremely competitive market, and it means that in order to break into the space we need to:

  • Write better.
  • Not give up.
  • Know what the markets we’re submitting to like to buy.
  • Write better.
  • Network: meet the people (online and offline), because people buy from people.
  • Write better.
  • Keep at it.

Less Money in Short Fiction The last ten years have seen a huge shift in how short fiction gets paid for (at least in science fiction, fantasy and horror). A quick glance at the listings on Duotrope suggests that a majority of short fiction markets paying professional rates are now online-only, and donation-funded. This introduces revenue uncertainty and irregularity for the publishers, which drives down what they can pay for stories, and limits the number of stories they can buy/publish. If an editor can buy two powerful (but shorter) stories for the price of one longer story of similar resonance, which would make the most sense? This is one of the main factors that is driving the increased call for flash fiction (short shorts < 1000 words, though definitions/preferences vary).

The Art of Implication

So given all of the above, what makes Hemingway’s six-word story so damned good? Why does it resonate so well? Because it adheres to all of the principles outlined above, while packing a tremendous emotional punch in only six short words. How does he do it? He employs what I call “the art of implication”. It’s a theory that Hemingway himself outlined in Death in the Afternoon and which since has come to be called the “iceberg theory”.

In a grossly over-simplified version, the theory says that the reader will fill in the blanks if the author leaves things out of the written story. The author can leave out events, characters, opinions, plot, etc. If what remains is written well enough, if there are enough context clues embedded in the text, the reader should be able to intuit or imagine what was left out. Each reader might intuit something different, but that would not detract from the overall emotional resonance of the story: if anything, it would strengthen the story by making it more resonant across a broader range of readers. That short, six-word sentence is a perfect example of this theory in practice:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
The Reader’s Investment This story is six words long. Hemingway is asking us for a very small investment of time. Who wouldn’t invest the time to read six short words?
Limited Cast of Characters This story – ostensibly – lacks characters. The characters are implied by the text. Who is the narrator? Who is selling these shoes? Is it the baby’s mother? The father? Some other relative? A stranger? A neighbor? Each of us fills in this blank for ourselves, putting a character into the story that they we will identify closely with.
Limited Perspective This is one of the very few stories I can think of that has no perspective. No matter how hard I try, I cannot read that sentence and determine (based on the evidence in the text) who is speaking. It does not feel like an omniscient narrator, but there is no evidence to the contrary. There is no hint of first person narration in the text itself, but (to me) it feels like there is. There is only one perspective in this story, and that perspective is whatever we put into it.
Limited Plot This story lacks a plot. That’s not a bad thing: some of the best stories lack a classic plot. In this case, the plot, the conflict, the events of the story are also implied. They take place in a time leading up to those six little words, and whatever occurred is something we intuit or imagine.

The urban legend states that Hemingway put this six-word story together to win a bet. He didn’t sell it anywhere, it wasn’t published anywhere, it is just one of the many anecdotes that follow legendary writers. Of course, it’s impossible to state definitively whether it would sell today. I doubt there’s an editor working in the English language today who isn’t familiar with this story.

However, if we’re looking to make a living writing six-word stories, I’d suggest we reconsider: while it’s an interesting exercise, there isn’t terribly much commercial demand for it. While stories of this length are clever, and can be momentarily satisfying, the investment and payoff are not – in and of themselves – quite satisfying enough. It’s a nice entre cours, but what readers are looking for is an plat principal with a little more meat on its bones.

So what do you think makes short stories work well? What kind of structures do you like to see? What are some of the best six-word stories you like? If you want to see the stories people came up with in response to’s Twitter challenge, just do a Twitter search for #sixwordfantasy (or today’s #sixwordscifi).

And in case you’re wondering what I came up with:


Murder! Hungry witch roasted by kids!


Traveler constructs her own quantum fates.

Nowhere near as good as Hemingway’s, but hopefully fun.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post, and great blog! I’m a huge fan of flash & short fiction, both as a reader and a writer. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    May 10, 2011
    • Glad you’re enjoying it! I always appreciate the feedback (positive, negative, or neutral). I’m looking forward to more of your thoughts/comments!

      May 10, 2011

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