Notes From Purgatory – In But A Few Choice Words


The Internet, as wondrous as it can be, has clipped our attention spans to the blink of an eye.  In some ways, we’ve become creatures of impatience and in such a short time.  So in a bustling world where we angrily click away from webpages that take more than three seconds to load, how is a writer to tell a story?

Enter flash fiction.

Flash fiction, short short stories, microfiction… these are all blanket terms for a complete, concise story comprised of but a few words.  The key words in this description are, of course, “complete” and “story.”  Read any market for flash fiction and you’ll quickly find editors want a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  They all require the same conflicts, characters, tension, action, and payoff as a longer piece, but told in a page or two… or less.

Wait, how the hell is that even possible?  Well, before we dive in, let’s take a look at what microfiction entails.

As previously mentioned, a short short story is literally just that.  The range of flash fiction varies, but a word count of under 1000-1200 is generally considered the cutoff point before you enter the world of the “short story.”  1000 words?  Flash fiction.  500 words?  Flash fiction.  250, 100, 50, 5 words?  Flash fiction.  There are disagreements, of course, but length is not that important, to be honest.  The actual story and the craft required to tell it is what really matters.

The first rule of flash fiction is that it must follow all requisites for a story.  We’re not going to get much of a connection with our readers if all we give them is a vignette without any real substance.  Instead, we need to have a fleshed out plot that is driven by conflict and that reaches a conclusion.  There must be a character, a setting, motivation, and all the other components that make up a story of any other length.  The challenge is to achieve such a fleshed out story in as few words as possible.

This leads us to the second rule: every word matters.  This rule rings true for all prose, of course, but especially for flash fiction.  At such a limited word count, every single word becomes important.  This includes commonplace words such as pronouns and articles like “a” and “the.”  We must be conscious of our word choice and shortcuts like contractions if we are to write as minimally as possible.  This isn’t to say that the shortest version of a story is the best – after all, we have to preserve the flow of a piece.  We simply have to be conscious of what we’re saying and how we’re constructing a story to say what we want it to.

Because we’re dealing with constraints in length, we must be sure to optimize each word, sentence, and paragraph.  Each word should enhance the next just as each sentence should build onto what is to come, and so on.  We (and our readers) don’t have time to become muddled in long descriptions of settings or superfluous word choice.  We have to give our audience the full story by only supplying the bones.  But how?

The third rule: implication.

In longer prose, we have the time to fatten up the story, building our world brick by brick and giving our beloved heroine an awesome back-story where she learned how to fight demons from her days as velociraptor nanny.  In flash fiction, however, we have to hint at such.  The best microfiction leads the reader to possibilities that go beyond the text.  This use of implication can be seen in the famous “six-word novel” usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

The story isn’t so much about what is written here (though the word choice is certainly fundamental), but what is implied.  These six little words are ominous in nature – implicitly mysterious – meant to force the reader to ask questions.  Why are these baby shoes for sale?  Whose were they?  And, the most obvious question we’re meant to ask: why were these baby shoes never worn?  There’s a story in there, although in this instance, the reader is tasked with constructing it themselves.

I’m not sure how successful this piece would be if submitted by a contemporary writer because its a rather unique example, but it illustrates the thought-process behind the creation of short prose.  As writers, we must facilitate our readers’ imaginations, giving them enough narrative to satisfy the plot while still allowing the story to progress in the minds of our audience even after the last word has been read.  A great writer can craft a flash fiction piece that’s self-contained, but still has a developed, directed sense of what lies beyond the story.

That’s a lot to consider given only a few hundred words with which to work.

Flash fiction requires a lot of practice just like any other prose.  Editors and readers are looking for hard-hitting stories that are written with such brevity that it impresses.  Microfiction isn’t just some shortcut to getting published quickly.  Crafting a great story in the span of a page is difficult and requires precision and a real grasp of the elements of a story as well as solid narrative flow.  But when you finally have your great story idea whittled down, each word polished and necessary, you’ll find that you’re left with prose that not only delivers, but inspires.

And all in but a few choice words.


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6 Responses

  1. N. M. Scuri says:

    I agree, Franklin! Shorter stories still have to tell the tale and every word has to count, especially with horror.

    I work with an artist and we published illustrated two sentence horror stories every week. We enjoy creating these stories, but it can be a challenge to convey the dread that horror demands, without a lot of buildup. It’s worth the effort, though.

    Thank you for sharing this. Shorter stories are not necessarily a short cut in storytelling.

  2. That’s a nice little site you have there, N.M. Scuri. Thank you for your reply.

    I’m always fascinated by a great piece of flash fiction not only because of the story itself but because, as an author, I am enamored with dissecting it to better understand its construction. It’s an artform in itself.

  3. Kevin says:

    So, are we submitting flash fiction to you?

  4. Kristy Hardway says:

    Mr. Murdock:

    That ‘six word novel’ is a terrific idea for sharpening your writing skills! I plan on making it a daily exercise/challenge for myself.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    K. A. Hardway

  5. Kevin,
    Sorry, I’m just not built to be an editor: the slush pile is too intimidating. If you’re looking for markets, however, is one of the best sites around for tracking calls for submissions for speculative fiction (including those for flash fiction).

    Good luck.

  6. Thank you for your comment, Kristy. I’ve seen some wonderful stories told in just a dozen or so words.

    Akin to such short-short(-short?) fiction is twitfic (prose told in 140 characters or less), which can be a challenge to pull off. In fact, DarkFuse (one of the premier markets for dark fiction) has just began a Tiny Terrors section of their e-zine. Check it out here if you’re interested: