Writer’s Craft: What is exactly is a Short-Short Story?
The name short-short story may be relatively new, but its forms are as old as parable, fable, and myth, wrote Robert Shaphard in 1986.
Yes, in 1986! I had no idea. I’ve only really become aware of the form in the last few months, perhaps I read some before but without labelling it as such? I don’t know. However, I’ve been on the search.
Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories is a collection of work all under 1500 words, published in the mid-eighties, with such notables as Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. I’ve been reading as much flash fiction and short stories recently because that’s what I’m turning to as I write. I wanted to find out more, find the history, learn the craft, and then probably ignore much of it knowing me. Still, it’s good to know what works, what has lasted. I’d not known the rich history though and this collection also had three short sections at the back where the authors talked about the form, what does it need to hold together, what is the best category to use, the naming of form and the craft as they saw it then.
How do we define and do we need to? Yes, we’re writers, we’re programmed that way, to write it out to make sense of the experience. Hence this short essay.
Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories has so many stories that are touching, inventive, suggestive. A week’s worth of reading if you’re like me and have to take on short story at a time, read with it, put it down, and let it rest.
At the end of the collection are three sections where the authors were asked to write about the craft, tradition, and yes, how to name this form. The discourse between the writers was just as interesting and their characters came out even in those responses.
Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness, a stripping away of anything unnecessary. There’s economy, wit, a turn at the end that is often funny, shocking, touching, or unexpected. Each one gives a sense of place, mood, scene and atmosphere in under three pages. I’d say they’re often less narrative and more evocative. They give us, the readers, a slice or quality of life, a moment of discovery, or a flash of illumination. They are complete and when you finish, the last line stains and lingers. That is the beauty of the form. The compact completeness that lingers.
There’s nothing like reading quality stories that inspire and this collection did. There are over sixty-five pieces, and only thirteen are by women writers. Shame. I’ll say nothing else here on that topic.
When critics and authors explain the interest in short-shorts these days (2018) they often claim it’s a result of the Internet, short attention spans, an influx of information. Exactly the same was said thrity years ago, even longer as some of the pieces in this Sudden Fiction came from the sixties. Perhaps then it’s just that there’s something so satisfying to dive into a world for only a few pages, if that, and be touched and surprised?
Whether I call them vignettes, prose poems, sketches, parables, fables, flash or short-shorts, these condensed concise tales of moment or incident live in a no man’s land that appeals to me. I’m enjoying playing with moments, memories, imagination, words and forms. This then is the start of a new body of work for me. I’m having fun. I’ll let you know how it goes. So far so good, I have over fifty of the buggers. I’m on a roll.
Here then is one my latest shorts:
She folds up her long legs into the front seat of the old Toyota truck, window rolled down, one silky arm draped out touching the trees as we drive down narrow rocky back roads mid morning and her other hand holds a tall mug of creamy coffee, clasping it carefully with feline fingers that trace the curves, and I drive with eyes averted, focused on the dangers ahead, the rocks unseen, the flash of animals in the woods, and the sun creeps into the valley as we head up and up, deeper and deeper into the unknown New Mexico wilds with only a vague sense of direction, the truck trundles onwards unflinching and reliable with the steady churning of gears slower and slower and the world gets rockier and my hands clench with determination not to wander too far off course and we’re barely moving but covering so much ground as we catch up and laugh out loud and tease and I drive, ignoring the hand on my lap, and squinting in the bright light, and then our mountain track opens up to a meadow of sunflowers as tall as this woman beside me and she turns to me and says, Stop, and I did and I still don’t regret a thing.