How short can a “short story” be? Merriam-Webster just defines it as “shorter than a novel”, telling us that a short story is:
an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot
Most competitions and markets want short stories over 1,500 words in length, but it’s possible to write a much shorter piece of fiction.
Short-shorts and Flash Fiction
Writing “short shorts” (stories under 1,000 words) can be rewarding, particularly if you don’t have a lot of time to write. Markets for these include the weekly womens’ magazines; here in the UK, My Weekly takes 850 word short stories and several of the magazines ask for 1,000 word pieces – as these fit onto a single page.
A powerful effect can be achieved with very few words, and the internet in particular has given “flash fiction”, stories generally between 250 and 1,000 words. Science-fiction publications are often open to these, as they are a good length for exploring a single idea or world – perhaps something which would not work if developed into a full plot, but which leaves questions in the readers’ mind.
You can go even shorter, though: how about a 100 word story or even 50 words? Don’t think it’s possible? Lots of people have been writing these, and they’re known under various names; drabbles (100 words), mini-sags (usually 50 or 60 words), and micro stories are some of the more common terms.
In the UK, Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special used to ask for 60-word short stories from readers. These almost always had a “twist” of some sort, leading the reader in one direction only to reveal the truth at the end. For example, here’s one of mine they published last year:
Katy ripped the packet open, and the scent hit: thick, rich chocolate. She’d been good for weeks; another pound gone today. Time for a treat.
She locked the door; Michael mustn’t see this. Ten minutes later, she had chocolate caked on her hands, round her mouth, even on her nose.
Katy, satisfied, took her flannel and wiped off the face-pack.
Online, these very short stories often lend themselves to a confessional or true life slant. For example, 100words.com is a community of people each dedicated to writing a 100-word post every day for a whole month, and these are generally snippets about daily life … though they can be anything, as the site says:
You can write about anything you want. Anything. Some people open tiny windows into their lives; others write surrealist poetry. Some writers post finely tuned, perfectly crafted vignettes; others show up at the end of the night and spew drunken nonsense onto the screen.
Another site I came across recently, www.commonties.com, invites authors to answer one of 20 questions. They want all answers to be true, but are also looking for quality writing – no more than 50 words. They pay $50 for each piece they accept.
We ask the world 20 questions, pair the answers with art, and publish our favorites (we call them “jeles”) every Friday.
There are a number of competitions around for very short fiction, sometimes combined with other constraints; for example, the BBC ran a competition last year for 100-word short stories which included the following words:
Bacon, bodies, experiments, fire, organic, paper.
I had a go (I didn’t win, alas!) with the following piece:
We built a fire in the woods, camping alone. Joe and I were eleven, and Richard was leader because he was a week past twelve.
“Let’s light it with a flint,” Richard said, once the wood was heaped. And we tried, despite our shivering bodies – then resorted to matches.
We whittled sticks, snapped childish experiments. Joe produced rolls of floury bread and a fat packet, wrapped in greased paper. We strung the bacon onto green sticks and charred it crisp.
No-one said organic, local produce or luxury range then — but sixty years later, I’ve never had a better sandwich.
Why not give micro fiction a try? Post your 50-100 word short stories on the Daily Writing Tips forum and we’ll enjoy reading them!