The shortest short story is reputedly by Ernest Hemingway and it goes something like this:
For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.
Now, you many argue that this isn’t a short story, that six words can’t possibly create a narrative. But it does have a beginning, middle and an end. It does raise questions and therefore has conflict. And it does have characters – a baby and therefore parents. What happened to them we’ll never know, because this is the kind of story where the reader gets to decide. Yes, that’s right folks, Hemingway trusted you to decide on things for yourselves. This is one of the great attractions of reading not only Hemingway’s work but any well crafted short story. The writer trusts you, the reader, which means he or she can get on with the business end of the story, focus on the economy of words, a moment in time that will reveal a character and his or her situation, a dilemma or conflict that may or may not be resolved by the end.
I have started writing short stories again, after many long years of writing novels, and have recently have been drawn to flash fiction too. This shorter form of fiction is classified as a complete story of 1,000 words or under, but competitions often ask for a smaller wordcount than that. In the absence of a short story to submit to the Bridport Prize this year (caused by the whole character-walking-out-on-my-story drama of a few weeks ago), I considered their 250 word maximum for flash fiction. Could I do that? I consider myself primarily to be a novelist, with my stories having a habit of expanding beyond such tight parameters. But this suddenly became a challenge, possibly made easier because I remembered a story from way back that could work at least as a starting point.
The story in question was already relatively short at 760 words, and was written for submission to Mslexia. They didn’t accept it and has stayed in a folder of miscellaneous writings that I haven’t looked at in years. In all other areas of my life I’m pretty good at chucking stuff out (I even got rid of 120 books when I moved house, which still hurts when I think about it), but when it comes to writing I’m a complete hoarder. So I reacquainted myself with its characters and story arc, then started whittling, cutting and cutting until it was a formless collection of sentences. Deleting a word became unreasonably enjoyable and finding one word to replace three even more so. A novelist? Me? You must have mistaken me for somebody else.
Finally I went about reshaping these words, just the essence of a narrative now, into something cohesive again. The finished piece was ok, a perfectly adequate story, but adequate won’t do for a competition entry, so I started doing some research, reading previous Bridport winners and looking at the various flash fiction websites. I’d set my story out in a conventional way with paragraphs, speech marks for dialogue, etc, but there were many stories that looked more like prose poems, with no line breaks and using italics for speech. I didn’t think this would work for my piece but thought I’d give it a try for experimental purposes. And the result was quite astonishing. The combination of continuous prose with integrated dialogue created a story that was so much more fluid and immersive, almost as though the reader was wrapped up in the first person voice. I also found that using a line break for the final line added emphasis, where before there was a risk it would just peter out. The story has now become a distillation of its formal self and is a submission-friendly 242 words long.
So here are the writing lessons I’ve learned this week:
- I’m not just a novelist – with the right mind-set I can do short and concise too.
- Being a writing hoarder is good – if the time wasn’t right for it before, it might be sometime in the future.
- Do research, learn from others, experiment.
- Never, ever, get rid of books.
My submission has now flown through the ether to the Bridport Prize cyber in-tray, but here is one of my favourite flash fiction stories from my research. It won first prize in a competition run for National Flash-Fiction Day on June 22nd:A Handful, by Tim Stevenson
I thought he’d been in the river for a year, down amongst the roots and tumbling stones.
My mother told me otherwise.
On a bookshelf something remained.
She’d taken it from the crematorium, she said, and he’s as useful around the house now as he ever was alive.
I wondered about the jar of grey ashes, which bit of him hadn’t made it to the river: an ear, a nose, the hand that clenched his pipe?
Incomplete, my father flows away, and somewhere a fisherman eats his catch, picks grit from his teeth and thinks, inexplicably, about tobacco.