Text: Solveig Hansen, 2022
“Checked tie. Striped jacket. White cane.”* You can say a lot in 6 words. Or 100, 200 or 300 words. Or 280 characters. Short shorts are a quick read, a perfect companion to a cup of coffee. No detailed backstories or character descriptions, just a story about one particular situation or one single moment, like a photograph. The readers fill in the empty spaces, the unsaid, themselves. They become co-authors.
While easy to read, stories this short are not always easy to write. Despite the limited number of words, the story has to be complete. There has to be a movement, something must happen, otherwise it’s not a story but merely a description. The readers shouldn’t be left wondering “what happens then” when they are done reading.
Maybe over a cup of coffee yourself, you pick and cut out words to create the precise word-pictures that tell the story and nothing but the story. It’s like chiseling a block of marble until all the redundant stone is chipped off and the face of a Roman god emerges. Kind of.
Short stories are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
― Neil Gaiman
1. Start fast. Draw the reader straight into the action.
2. Use a limited number of characters, maybe just one.
3. Use a strong theme. One conflict or situation is often enough.
4. Focus on one single significant moment that tells the reader something about the life of the character. What does the character want? What stops him/her?
5. Show, don’t tell. Use precise words.
6. After finishing the story, add a final line with a surprising twist. Maybe someone asks an unexpected question.
7. Find an effective title that adds depth to the story.
One good source for short stories is 100 Word Story, an online literary magazine that invites readers to submit stories of 100 words. They also offer a monthly photo prompt. The creator of the site is Grant Faulkner, who also created NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).
That Girl by Heather Beecher Hawk describes one particular day in the character’s life. She’s soon to leave her small town and her boyfriend invites her to meet his family. After introductions, his mother says, “Ain’t she pretty,” and they all agree, “Ain’t she pretty.” That’s all. No character descriptions, yet we see them clearly, crammed in their lawn chairs outside a small blue trailer. Like a photograph.
Arleane Ralph’s The Postcard tells where an old postcard was found and where it goes, all during a kitchen remodeling. A complete story in 100 words. “Contractors discovered the postcard upon pulling out the kitchen cabinetry. It sat for days on a switch box until the drywallers came. Then it rested…”
At 50-Word Stories, you can submit your own story first half of the month. “As with any other form of fiction, a 50-word story should have a beginning and an end, a plot and character development (even if they are only implied), and a theme, meaning, or purpose of some sort. Many 50-word stories are built around twists or climactic moments.”
Bob McWilliams wrote this story, called Ticket to Nowhere:
“I excitedly opened the envelope. At last, my senior citizen train pass was in my hands! I can ride for free anywhere in the city. All those years commuting and paying for that privilege are over. As a retiree, I ride for myself now.
“But I have nowhere to go.”
What’s your story? Tell it in 6 words. In 2006, when Larry Smith at SMITH Magazine challenged his readers to describe their life in exactly 6 words, the stories poured in and the Six-Word Memoirs was born. “Everyone” writes 6-word stories. They sum up their life or a small part of it:
“Told to marry rich, married Richard.”
“Wasn’t born a redhead, fixed that.”
“Mom’s Alzheimer’s: she forgets, I remember.”
From the dedicated Teens section:
“I prefer skeletons remain in closets.”
“I have this condition called ‘lazy’.”
“How’ll I mess up this time?”
During the pandemic, the Six team asked people to share their COVID experiences — in 6 words, of course. “PANDEMIC. zero out of five stars,” Penelope Williams (11) wrote. 500 stories from students, teachers and parents are published in the book A Terrible, Horrible, No Good Year: Hundreds of Stories on the Pandemic.
“Start as close to the end as possible.” “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Kurt Vonnegut on how to write a short story:
*A 6-word story from the Norwegian book “Du trenger ikke mer enn 6” (which means: You don’t need more than 6).