Driven by social media and falling concentration spans, the trend of recent times is for shorter and shorter fiction. Twitter is a prime example, with writers challenged to fit something meaningful into 140 characters. This was highlighted in a recent article in The Author, house magazine of the UK’s Society of Authors, which cited a challenge to college students to cover the themes of religion, sex and mystery in as few words as possible. The winning entry ran: ‘Good God, I’m pregnant; I wonder who did it.’
In similar vein there’s a popular (but probably untrue) anecdote about Ernest Hemingway, who was noted for paring his stories to the bone. Once after running up a large debt while drinking in a bar, he was challenged to write a complete story in six words. His response was this: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Like a good haiku, it leaves the reader to imagine the possibilities.
Science fiction writer Frederic Brown has been credited with the shortest story ever written in his 1948 piece titled ‘Knock’. It goes like this: ‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…’ In response an author called Ron Smith wrote a story with the ironically lengthy title of ‘A Horror Story Shorter by One Letter than the Shortest Story Ever Written’. It was a subtle twist on the same theme: ‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a lock on the door.’
The Guatemalan writer August Monterroso devoted himself to penning short stories, the shortest of which was even shorter than a haiku. ‘When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.’ The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood also came up with a short story that moves from hope to triumph to despair in six short words: ‘Longed for him. Got him. Shit.’
By these standards the Writers in Kyoto Competition might seem generous indeed with its 300 word limit. Compare it with the long running 55 Fiction, born in 1986 when New Times, an independent weekly in California, organized a short story writing contest. Steve Moss, the publisher of the paper, proposed the idea and it now receives more than a thousand entries annually.. The stipulation is that within 55 words there must be a setting, one or more characters, some conflict and a resolution.
The 55 Competition is said to have sparked a boom known as Flash Fiction. Two of the best-known sites are Vestal Review and the UK’s Flash: The International Short Short Magazine. While the title plays a vital role in making sense of the concise stories, the punctuation can also be essential to the meaning, as seen in ‘The Proposal’, which has a crucial comma in the last sentence. ‘He asked her as the lift gave way. She smiled. They fell, in love.’
One person who’s been taxing his brain for some time over how to be concise is David Williams, author of the magazine article from which the above is taken. His latest book, self-published, features 1000 stories in 1000 tweets. Here are three very different examples…
They agreed there would be no lies between them. Now the truth they told each other lies between them.
‘A losing hand’.
Their marriage started with two hearts and a diamond. It ended with a club and a spade.
‘Out of the picture’.
When she started handing him the camera to record family occasions, he realised this was the beginning of the end.
The Writers in Kyoto runs an annual competition of 300 words on the theme of Kyoto. For more information, including requirements, prizes and previous winning entries, please see this page. The next deadline is coming up soon on March 1, 2018.