The Art of the Short Short Story

Updated: Jan 29, 2019

With the fee for entering our competition knocked down to just $3, it’s the perfect time to share with us your short stories. Short, flash, or micro: all are in with a chance of winning $100 and a host of other prizes. And although we’ve chosen word count guides to differentiate each form, there’s more to creating super short stories than cutting out words until you hit your target.

There’s no definitive rule to the number of words in each form of short story. Although there are generally accepted guides to tell at a glance whether fiction is a short story, novella, or novel, there is a plethora of names for different lengths of short story. For the purpose of our competition, we’ve defined micro fiction as up to 300 words, flash fiction up to 1,000 words, and short fiction as being up to 5,000 words. As for an absolute minimum, there are no rules: most Twitter users have become adept at fitting the story they want to share into 140 characters, and arguably the most well-known micro story was only 6 words long. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway, and has inspired writers to try their hand at telling a story in the utmost brevity.



Although the “six-word memoir” has proven itself capable of conveying emotion in such a short form, most short stories will use more words to create a narrative. A drabble has 100 words to form characters and narrative, and the 55 Fiction is restricted to 55 words, such as ‘Just One Wish’ by George Heitczman:

"Because you saved me," said the genie, "tomorrow I shall grant you one wish."

His father said: "Wish for gold!"

His blind mother said: "Restore my sight."

His barren wife said: "A child!"

Next day to the genie he said: "I wish my mother could see my wife rocking our child in a golden cradle."

At exactly 55 words, ‘Just One Wish’ provides characters (the genie, the man, and his three companions), characterisation (the genie is fair, the man is wise, the father desires wealth, the mother would like to see again, and the wife is unable to conceive but craves a child), and narrative, including the backstory that is only hinted at (how did the man save the genie, and from what peril?).

The omission of backstory is not merely a matter of cutting out words. Sarah Manguso paraphrases J. Robert Lennon in explaining that “the very short story isn’t just a shorter version of the conventional 5,000-word short story; it is its own thing. Omission must also be part of its machinery. The narratives must both shock and loom, and must manage both effects in very short time.” Although a resolution may be offered, the short short story must hint at something larger than itself – it should engender a curiosity about what has been left unsaid. Ambiguity is not a necessity – it may even prove too confusing when working with such limited data.

David Gaffney (

Short stories may hinge on a single action or the narrative may take place over many years, even a lifetime. They can be read in a couple of minutes yet linger long after the ending. Every detail is crucial; in all prose it is necessary to trim the extraneous material, but in the short story especially it is vital that the piece feel concise, not constrained by its form but rather liberated to keep to the bare minimum. In micro fiction, the details that would make a novel – the identity of the narrator, his relationship with the other characters, his reasons for being in that situation – are surplus to the thematic arc. With flash fiction, there is more scope for careful development of character and setting – providing it never runs the risk of rambling. Jason Gurley recommends writing out the story you have in mind, regardless of its length, and then performing a quick edit by removing every adjective and adverb, before going over it once more to ensure there is a definable plot, a point to your story, and that each and every word is essential, that the story could not function if any of those words were removed.

Gurley asks “Can you identify the three simple parts of this story? Do you have a clear beginning? A strong centerpiece? A definitive ending? If you don't, you've got nothing more than a snippet of a larger story. Start editing.” Moments of reflection are all well and good – or, they can be, if they don’t devolve into sentimental meanderings – but there should still be a sense of change. Whether it’s the setting, the activity, or the character, every short story should demonstrate some element of change. In Jen Michalski’s ‘Among the Wreckage’, the plot is perhaps the opposite of change: it is the story of a woman reclaiming her car and therefore returning to normality. Yet there are suggestions that it is the woman who has changed, even as she clings to her own denial.

You only have a limited number of words to pull in your reader, so make sure the first ones make an impression. Cleveland Moffett’s opening to ‘What Are Friends For’ is direct yet intriguing: “No one doubted that Jeff’s father was dying and most of us who’d heard about it were very sorry. But would he be dead by Saturday, that was the essential question.” The essential question perhaps, but it immediately prompts another dozen in a reader that has to read on to find the answers.

Short short stories are fast and fleeting, but the best ones leave an impression that are disproportionate to their size. If you think you can affect a reader, submit your stories at our Submittable portal.

#writing #short #stories #micro #flash #fiction




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