Short Stories

If you keep up, you might have thought from my last post that my WordPress account was hacked or something, or I’m really bad at using the system, or fell asleep on my keyboard, or have been reading a little too much xkcd.  All of those are false, except one. (Hint: It’s the last one!).  But I also felt as though I really should say something before shooting my mouth off about a writing topic.

If you’re a fan of either classic American literature or Cracked.com (and really, what’s the difference, amIright?), you might be familiar with the story of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story (which he also is said to have considered his best work).  He apparently wrote it on the basis of a bet, when someone bet him he couldn’t write a complete story in just six words.  What did he come up with:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Sheesh, if that story doesn’t absolutely tear you to pieces like you’re the 34th piece of junkmail this week, I don’t know if you’re really a human being with feelings and stuff.  I mean, the tragedy of it all!  And it’s only six words long!!! I’m still crying over this story.

Seriously, tell me this isn’t breaking your heart right now!

But it raises the question – how short should a short story be?

The easy answer is, “it should be no longer than it needs to be.”  Clearly, Hemingway’s story doesn’t need to be any longer to paint the picture that it does.  However, I don’t know how many writers actually have the depth and mastery of language and imagination to be able to condense a complete story down that far and still make it meaningful.

I remember in my high school creative writing courses our teacher would challenge us to write complete stories in 55 words or less.  It was really a struggle, but it was also a lot of fun.  What it forced me – and my classmates – to do was cut out every word that wasn’t necessary.  Strunk and White would be so proud…

Point is, don’t let your short story get too wordy.  In fact, the fewer words you can use to write your story, the better. A good story never was harmed for lack of enough words, but many stories (ahem, Twilight…) have suffered for too many needless words.  While this may seem counter-intuitive if you want to sell your work (that whole paid by the word thing and all…), in reality it can make the difference between a good story bogged down by too many words, and a story made great by its crisp brevity.

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6 thoughts on “Short Stories

  1. A couple of thoughts:

    1. Twilight’s problem isn’t too many words. Well, at least, that’s not its main problem. 🙂

    2. Brevity of language, using powerful words within that brevity, makes for powerful storytelling. Agreed!

    3. Show us an example of a story of 55 words or less? (Says the guy whose serial story here has stretched to eight parts, with at least two parts to come…)

    Shall we make a contest of it? In the next two weeks, each of us posts a story of 55 words or less?

  2. I’m game for that. One thing I was just thinking of is that it could be really hard to write a proper sci-fi story in 55 words or less, only because often writing sci-fi requires a certain amount of explanation of something… unless you stick to classic elements, which may make it appear stale. I’m going to have to play with the idea a little.

    Also, I agree that Twilight’s problems are many, and not limited to too many words. But I’ll be honest that the basic formula (I mean, really basic… eliminate ALL particulars) of the story is not bad, and if Meyer had aimed for a single novel to develop the story, it might have turned out at least better. But that would have just been the start.

  3. For consideration of genre storytelling, double the length? That’ll still clearly present a challenge. 110 words?

    The entire Twilight saga in one novel that isn’t George R. R. Martin length? That could be fun! And I will admit that the basic premise isn’t terrible, though I’m still not partial to sparkly vampires.

  4. That whole sparkly vampire thing would be one of those particulars I said to eliminate….

    Yeah, I could see 110 as an appropriate challenge for genre fiction. Sheesh, now I’m going to be buzzing all day with ideas to refine…

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