Filed under Market Report, Trends & Tropes on November 22, 2011
Tagged: Ernest Hemingway, short stories
I grew up reading novels as my primary source of fiction. This influenced my perception of what a story was, and guided my steps as I developed my identity as a writer. The vision I beheld of my future career was filled with epic fantasy novels, not anthologies of short stories. How ironic that my first professional publication was a short story.
Short stories are a different animal than novels from a craft perspective. I didn’t appreciate that until forced to write one. The first short story I wrote was for my creative writing class my senior year in high school, the same one I submitted to a state contest later that year. (I don’t count those stories I wrote for Show And Tell back in the third grade, as I didn’t have a sufficient awareness of the differences at the time.) I remember trying to cram a handful of themes into just a few thousand words. The result was so diluted that none of them were really discernible. That was my first insight into what made a good short story. It takes a certain skill to distill the basic elements of a story into fewer and fewer words.
I believe my experience as a technical writer has contributed to my own development of this ability, and to my acknowledgement of the validity of shorter forms of storytelling. Technical writing is all about the use of concise language to get right to the point. It also helps that I’ve written shorter forms of fiction, honing my craft with each attempt. I remember scoffing at the thought of 500-words being enough to actually tell a story, then writing my first flash fiction piece in a thread on the now-defunct WotC Novels forum while waiting to hear the results of the Maiden of Pain contest.
Short fiction is extremely popular on the Internet. Flash fiction websites pop-up every week on Duotrope, and I know of several online markets that accept longer works in the form of serials. There are even sites that are looking for very short stories–the shorter, the better. My friend Richard F. Yates recently started such a site and is accepting submissions.
How short can a story be, though, before it is no longer a story? Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story” is 633 words, putting it over the threshold for flash fiction. What about his apocryphal six-word story “Baby Shoes”? It’s credited as a “complete” story because it has “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Those are rather vague terms, so I prefer to analyze it through the lens of the old plot graph I learned back in grade school. A “complete” story should have an introduction, a conflict with rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution.
It’s hard to convey all that in less than 10 words, at least literally. How “Baby Shoes” and similar very very very short fiction succeed in doing so is by inference. The text of the fictitious newspaper ad conjures up a vivid image of someone mourning the loss of an infant as they struggle with the decision of what to do with all the things they bought in anticipation. The conflict peaks when the ad is written and submitted to the newspaper, and resolves when it is actually printed. By engaging the reader, and requiring them to fill in the blanks, those few words turn into a story.
I wrote a very very very short story (and am working on a second) and submitted it to my friend’s website. Check out “Disconnected” and tell me if you think it qualifies as a story.