21 March 2020

Super-Short Stories

Note the hyphen in the title: this post is not about short stories that are super. It's about stories that are super-short. And it's a result of the many responses I've received about a creation of mine that was published last week at a market called 50-Word Stories.

Besides being fun to write, these mini-stories--I've heard them called "sudden" fiction--are good practice. If you set out to write something short, especially something with a predetermined wordcount, you know you can't waste any words. It's a concept we writers need to keep in mind for longer stories as well, but with very short stories it's vital.

What do some of these tiny stories look like? Here are some examples.

50 words

My recent effort at 50-Word Stories is titled "Mum's the Word"--which they misspelled as "Mom's the Word," not that it matters; that title might be better than my own. It's a dialogue-only piece that was originally published years ago at a place called Flashshot.

Here's a link to my story, and since it's so short I've reprinted it here:

"A 50-word story? Impossible."
"You're wrong."
"Try it."
"Okay: Honey, I'm pregnant."
"Just kidding."
"Not funny."
"How about: I'm pregnant, and it's not yours."
"Kidding again. How many words, so far?"
"Let's stop. I'm hungry."
"For what?"
"How many words now?"
"And ice cream."

(Thanks again, by the way, to those kind folks who posted comments at the bottom of that story.)

45 words

Here's another short-short-short, this one not quite fifty words, written by my friend Kate Fellowes. She informed me that it recently won the San Diego Public Library's annual Matchbook Short Story Contest (!). Notice how much information she managed to pack into so few words:

Who stole my youth? The detective I hired uncovered the truth. "They were in it together," he said, passing me photos. Father Time showed no remorse, his face kind and gentle. Mother Nature was unrepentant. "Honestly, darling," she said when questioned, "what did you expect?"

I really, really like that story. Thank you, Kate, for giving me permission to reprint it here.

26 words

Still counting down, I want to mention a story I included in a SleuthSayers post several years ago. I wrote it for a contest--the instructions said to compose a 26-word story such that each word begins with a different letter of the alphabet, in order. (Contestants were allowed some wiggle-room in that we could use words like Xcept and Xtended and Xterminated for the letter X.) All this struck me as a challenge, which it was, and it turned out to be even more fun than I'd thought. I wrote eight or nine Xperimental stories before picking the one I wanted to send in--here are a few of those I considered submitting:

A baboon cage, discovered empty. Facility gurus hired investigator JoNell Kendrix. "Lost monkeys," Nell observed. "Probable quick reasons: smuggling, theft, utter villainy. Who, Xactly? You, zookeeper!"

All Balkan country doctors exhibit frequent generosity, high intelligence, jovial kindness, likable manner. Numerous other physicians quite regularly seem to undertake video work--Xample: Yuri Zhivago.

Alphabetically blessed children don't ever feel glum. However, insecure jaded kids like me (named Oliver Prattlebloom) quite rarely say things. Unless: "Very well, Xavier," "Yes, Zachary."

American Broadcasting Company department executives: Footage gathered here includes John Kennedy's last moments. No other producers quickly responded, so this unedited video will Xcite you. Zapruder.

Since you're probably rolling your eyes by now and searching for a Tylenol or a barf-bag, let me assure you that I agree: none of those seemed to hit the spot. (I have some more near-misses, but I'll spare you.) I finally wrote and submitted this one instead, which I titled "Mission Ambushable."

Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected you." ZAP.

That story, which I realize is still a groaner, wound up winning second place in the contest, which resulted in a $30 Amazon gift card that got used about ten seconds after it hit my inbox. (I don't recall what the first-place story was, but I remember consoling myself that it wasn't as good as mine. What were those judges thinking . . . ?)

12 words

And here's another of my masterpieces, called "The Pain in Spain":

She ran with the bulls at Pamplona;
One stuck her, another steptona.

(Okay, that's a poem, not a story. But you'll have to admit, it's profound literature.)

8 words

I read someplace--I think it was in a how-to-write book by English novelist E. M. Forster, though I can't remember its title--that a story can be defined as a series of related events. An example of this, he said, is the following eight-word sentence:

The king died and then the queen died.

Nor much of a story, you say? Maybe not. But since it involves two events that are related to each other, it meets the requirements. And in case you're interested, I recall that Forster went on to illustrate the difference between a story and a plot. He said that while those eight words make it a story, adding two more words can make it a PLOT:

The king died and then the queen died of grief.

Interesting, I thought.

6 words

One of the shortest stories I've seen, again and again over the years--you probably have, too--is the following six-worder:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Some say its author was Ernest Hemingway, but that's never been proven. I still love it. In fact, if I think about it too long it brings a tear to my eye--and I admire any story, poem, novel, or movie that can do that.

Not to be outdone, here is my own six-word story, called "Radio Silence."

"Entering Bermuda Triangle. No problems whatsoev--"

That one was submitted also, to a six-word flash-fiction contest. It not only didn't win, it never even got a response. (Not that I let rejection bother me; I choose to believe it fell behind the piano and the judges never saw it.)

A final word

I'm afraid I don't know of any story examples of fewer than six words. If you do--or if you know of other shorties under fifty words, especially those you've written yourself, please let me know in the comments. And for those of you who have done this kind of thing, did you find micro-writing interesting? Challenging? Fun? Hard? More trouble than it's worth?

By the way, that SleuthSayers post I mentioned, about the alphabet-soup contest? I remember closing it with the following thought. It seems to apply here too:

Alas, Boring Columns Do Eventually Finish.

See you in two weeks.


  1. Not boring at all. Good mental exercise first thing in the morning.

  2. Thanks, O'Neil. That's the ONLY kind of exercise I want, early in the morning. Hope all's well with you and your writing. Be safe!

  3. These are great, John. I knew of the baby shoes story, but the others were new territory for me.

    I used to have a book of 55-word stories and use several of them in my workshop on writing short stories to show how little you really need in a story. Character, conflict, some kind of resolution. It does't take long, and you've shown it even better than those stories do.

  4. Steve, you've written so many novels these stories probably seem like a blink of the eye, to you.

    I too have seen that book of 55-word stories (there are probably more than one of them), and I think I have it around here somewhere. They are indeed good examples of having to shoehorn all the required elements into a tiny space. The funny thing is, I've found I enjoy that, and I honesty believe that these little exercises help us when it comes to writing the longer things too.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  5. I really enjoyed reading your stories, John. (And thanks for including mine!) Now I'm inspired to write tiny tales more frequently, something I like to do with haiku--they are so perfect to post on Twitter. I think your Bermuda Triangle story should have won. So clever!

  6. I loved your post, John. Yes, I've heard the Hemingway 6-worder before. Most limericks, as we all know, have a complete plot. (Sure, it's often dirty, but that still counts.) I've played around with it before, and I might have to try again!

  7. Clearly there is no limit to human ingenuity- or to your clever posts.

  8. I've written a few pieces of flash and micro fiction, but what I remember most is when I participated in a six-word challenge. The challenge: Write your bio in six words. Mine:

    Wrote lots. Sold lots. Earned little.

  9. Kate, thanks for letting me include your contest-winning story!

    All this of course tends to stretch the meaning of what a story really is, but it's always fun to write these and to read them as well. (And neither takes much time, which is also a plus!)

    By the way, everybody: I neglected to mention that Kate has agreed to do a guest post at SleuthSayers in May, so that's something we can all look forward to!

    Thank you again, Kate.

  10. Eve, those limericks are a whole nuther story. Yep, most of them are naughty, but I think their appeal is the GREAT rhythm they have--sure, they're singsong rhymes, but the way they flow just feels right somehow. I've sold a bunch of those to magazines.

    Janice, you are too kind. I once heard that narrowminded writers can produce the shortest stories.

    Michael, I like that six-word challenge. That shortened bio would also apply to me.

    Thanks, my friends, for your comments!

  11. cj Sez: Like Kate, I'm inspired by haiku but find it incredibly hard to write. I consider my short stories prose haiku, a form where every single word does count and must (or should) relate more than one meaning. That also helps with novel writing. Thanks, John Floyd, for sharing.

  12. John, my favorite limerick of all times is not dirty, and comes from Edward Gorey:

    Each night Father fills me with dread
    when he sits at the foot of my bed.
    I'd not mind that he speaks
    In gibbers and squeaks,
    but for seventeen years he's been dead!

  13. cj, I've never been much good at haiku, but I respect the talent it takes to create it. I agree completely, on having to make every word count. Someone once said (Faulkner, maybe?) that when he found he couldn't write poetry he tried short stories and when he found he couldn't write short stories he tried novels. The short stuff isn't always easy. But I think any kind of writing can make us better at writing other kinds.

    Thanks for the insights--keep up the good work. And be safe!

  14. John, for two-word stories, there is always the old:


  15. Eve, I like that! A funny, horror-story limerick. The best ones have that "grabber" in the final line, don't they.

    Others are fun just because of the clever wordplay. Here's one of my favorites, by my hero Ogden Nash:

    A flea and a fly in a flue
    Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
    Said the fly, "Let us flee!"
    "Let us fly!" said the flea.
    So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

    Love that stuff.

  16. R.T., I should've known I could count on you for the absolutely shortest story possible. I like it!

  17. Great post, John. Your reputation precedes you to this relative newbie. Aside from my own short story writing and editing the BOULD Awards Anthologies, I've played with some things I call "beach hackoos," like this one: "Umbrella open, windy day, owners walking, far away. Somebody gonna get an eye poked out." Also, six-word not-so-famous last words, like the old redneck one: "Hold mah beer and watch this." Here are a couple: "Uh-oh, black hole. Tell Mom I ..." or "Nah, kid, it's not loaded. See?" It's fun to write those when I find a two-minute break from time to time.

  18. Hey Jake! Thanks for chiming in, here. Your black-hole "story" sounds like my Bermuda-Triangle one. (I agree with you, these things are a lot of fun to write--and two minutes sounds about right!)

    Good luck with the BOULD anthologies--I'll have to try sending you something, for those!

    Take care.

  19. Thanks, John. I'd love to see some of your submissions for the BOULD Awards. For the submission guideline, just send an email to anthology @ bouldawards.com (remove the spaces, of course), and you'll get an auto-reply with all the details. The weirder, the better.

  20. I sent a drabble to the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts about a year ago. They didn't accept it, but last week they emailed me & others who had submitted there unsuccessfully that if we would provide postal addresses, they would send one of their books. Mine arrived yesterday & I can't wait to read it.

  21. Liz, I hadn't heard of them. Will have to check that out!

    "Drabble" is probably a good word for some of the things I submit . . .

  22. A drabble is a story of 100 words, not including the title. I've published several.

  23. Liz -- I sit corrected. "Drubble" is probably what I've submitted.

  24. Great post, John. I enjoyed all the short stories you posted. Reminds me I have a couple hanging around I should submit. Keep on writing! As if I had to tell you to do that.

  25. John that was wonderful! I think your two alphabet stories with surprise endings ("Zapruder" and "Zhivago") were better than the one that won second place! (But what do I know?) I've written a buttload of flash stories in the last few years, mainly for a Facebook page called "Friday Flash Fics." (Everyone is welcome to participate!) And two (Yes, two!) of my first published stories were for a fifty-five word fiction anthology! (Geez, twenty one years ago!) Again, John, your posts are entertaining and informative and always welcome. And never boring!

  26. Thanks, Jan and Jeff, for your kind words.

    Jan, you need to find and dust off those old stories and send them in!

    Jeff, glad to hear you liked a couple of my discarded efforts for that alphabet story. (You should see some of the others I didn't include here!) It really was a fun exercise. And congrats on your success in getting into those 55-word fiction anthologies! I bet the competition is fierce, for those.

    Take care, both of you.

  27. Those are fun, John.

    One other: You and I are both admirers of Elsin Ann (Graffam) Perry's Wide O.

    My personal best is 6½ words.

    Tomorrow I'll get even: more flash, less nutrition.

  28. Hey Leigh. Yep, I'll always love Wide-O. I used to read it to my writing students. Did I tell you, I've corresponded with her quite a bit over the years--what a great lady she is.

    6 1/2 sounds pretty good, to me.

    Be safe!

  29. John, your mention of Ogden Nash reminded me that my parents knew little two and three word ditties. One was titled…


  30. John,

    Witty and enjoyable. Thanks for sharing with us!

  31. Leigh -- Adam probably for sure had 'em! I'll have to remember that one. Nash was the best . . .

    Hey Jacqueline -- Thank you for stopping in, here. And thanks also for the kind words. Keep writing!

  32. You may or may not be aware, the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Mystery Writers of America (of which I'm the treasurer) hosts a 6-word contest in several categories such as cozy, thriller, etc., with cash awards. Usually it opens the first of October and is open to anyone, not just members.

  33. NO, Bruce, I wasn't aware of that--and it's my loss. I bet you get some fun entries, to that contest.

    Thank you for letting me (us, at SleuthSayers) know.


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