The very short story

Trade fiction—selling books—is commercially dominated by the novel format. To a much lesser extent there’s the short story. This is usually perceived as less commercial because it’s harder to sell a bunch of different stories with different ideas, instead of just one story with one concept, and one marketing plan. But, there’s another format that’s even more commercially peripheral than the short story: the very short story.

There are those that even deny its existence—very short stories are just ‘notes’ or ‘ideas’ waiting to be worked up into a ‘real’ short story. We live in a world where the novel is the literary gold standard, and the novella is a half-novel (unless you’ve ‘made it’, in which case it’s a work of art). The novella is, I think, a beautiful format, but—generally speaking—if you pay £7.99 for a novel, many consumers think they’re paying for the number of words, so a novella would logically cost… what… £2.99? And a 5,000-word short story something like 30p. This is the kind of logic that very short story writers are up against. And with mainstream magazines and journals having jettisoned the short story decades ago, the very short story has become the literary equivalent of Outsider Art.

Things aren’t helped that very short fiction goes by a bunch of names, which often mean different things to different people. This is one of the ‘problems’ with very short fiction—there are so many versions: six word stories, flash fiction, dribble (50 words), microfiction / drabble (about 100 words), twitter fiction (140 characters), sudden fiction (about 750 words), three sentence fiction, nine sentence fiction, twelve sentence fiction, and so on. People who write very short fiction tend to write stories to their preferred length. For example, I generally write 250-ish word stories. Some people like dribbles, 80 word stories, others drabbles or 500 word stories. It’s a big world, and I’m not judging.

So, you might want to ask the question: what is it about the very short story that makes it such an attractive format? The simple answer is that stories under 1000 words provide an amazing space for the rapid expression of ideas, and emotion, without requiring too much outlay in both time and effort. This makes it a brilliant format for creative experiment, written portraits, sketches, and generally testing out ideas—all without the expenditure of too much time. There’s also something satisfying about creating a completed story, rapidly, in one sitting (and they are blissfully quick to edit). You can fit a 100-word story in during your day, but a 5,000 word story takes significantly more time, commitment and mental preparation.

Hemmingway is famously credited with writing the six-word story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ But there are many other writers out there who produced very short fiction: Franz Kafka, Anton Chekov, Kate Chopin, Virginia Wolf (Monday or Tuesday), Mark Twain, and Yasunari Kawabata (Palm of the Hand Stories). James Thurber’s brilliant A Box To Hide In was published in the New Yorker in 1931. Dan Rhodes exceptional Anthropology and a hundred other stories covers mostly personal relationships, and Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947) retells the same story in 99 different versions. Although very short fiction isn’t necessarily a ‘modern’ format—it dates back to the parable and Aesop’s Fables—it’s very modern in the sense that its brevity allows writers in a busy and stressful world to keep writing, and readers to keep reading.

Categories Writing

Adrian Graham blogs and writes fiction. He’s studying for an MA in Creative Writing.