October 22, 2014

How Short Can a Good Short Story Be?

How Short Can a Good Short Story Be?

It is said, though not proven, that Hemingway coined this short story:

For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Serious flash fiction, right? And it definitely is a story: a beginning, middle, and end. And for myself, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard.

But it seems there is an unspoken rule in the world of short stories – that they have to reach a certain length to be good enough, especially in the shadow of their more popular brother, novels. Flash fiction doesn’t stand a chance.

I beg to differ. What makes a good short story is not a page count that mimics Alice Munro’s collections. And neither is it forcing yourself to cross out every adjective just so your story can be under 15 pages. A good short story – no matter how small it is – depends on how well the reader and writer discovers what’s unwritten.

Let’s look at Hemingway’s alleged story. Several questions come to mind, which give the story its extra color. What happened to the baby? Did she or he die? Was the child the parents’ first… or their only child? What makes a person sell the only thing they have to remember their child by, or how painful was it to sell the thing that reminded you of a child you could never have? Short stories work their magic by showing you only the tip of the its iceberg and let you create, the underside of the iceberg, the larger part where the story lives, the unsaid story part you already know. And this can be for any short story – super short, or nearly novella-sized.

Short stories can definitely have interesting and unique descriptions, but only the best rise to the top – the author is forced to choose the details that help you create the rest of them in your mind. Novels are fantastic in creating a whole new world, but they do it by handholding – short stories are powerful in placing you deeply into a world, but through minimalist writing.

Where novels run the risk of you skimming to get to the good parts; short stories rocket you right into the good parts. It’s like a fortune cookie, or an interesting quote: you know what you’re going to get, in the exact length you’re going to get it. You don’t say, “Hey, that quote should have been longer!” or, “I wish the fortune would have told me what I’d be wearing and what the weather will be like when I meet a new friend soon!” Short stories serve their purpose, and they serve it well, no matter if they’re six words, fifty words, or 50 pages.

What do you think? Are some short stories just too small, and seem like greeting cards than an actual piece of fiction? Is there a place on your reading list for the short story? Leave your thoughts in the comment box.

Paul Worthington

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