Short Shorts: Extremely brief prose forms plus LitReactor’s first Short Shorts Contest!

Image via: Taylor Made Designs

You could probably use an extra lifetime just to read all those wonderful and interesting words out there:

  • the contents of your bookshelf
  • the contents of your bookstore
  • all those blogs you think are cool but never have time to read
  • that stack of New Yorkers piling up
  • those literary mags you subscribed to at the last writers conference in a flurry of writerly camaraderie
  • the nutritional content of all the food in your cupboard
  • the fine print at the bottom of that credit card application that seems too good-to-be-true

For the time-pressed writer and bibliophile, there's always short form.

Brief stories and tiny poems are nothing new. With forms as old as haiku and the fable, the concept of the quick, to-the-point piece of writing is very, very old. However, in the last couple decades or so, a new interest in these very short forms has resurfaced in the literary world. Of course, we can blame the internet and our increasingly busy and fragmented lives for the rising popularity of things like flash fiction. A short tour through a few of my favorite writing sites turned up quite a few examples that run the gamut from 6-word stories to 750-word memoirs, everything in-between and a few beyond.

Here are a just a few of the varieties I came up with, as well as where they are published and how you can get involved. Also, read to the end to learn how you can enter LitReactor’s own Short Shorts Contest and publish a petite story of your own right here.

Flash Fiction

This self-explanatory genre comes in a variety of sizes:  the 6-word story, the 55 fiction, the 100-word Drabble, and the 1000-word Micro to name a few.

Despite its shortened length, the rules of flash fiction are the same as the rules of any fictional story. Each story, no matter how short, must contain the basic elements of plot:

  • protagonist
  • conflict
  • obstacles
  • resolution

However, not all of these elements must actually be written. They can exist in the unsaid, which is the challenge of such a form. Clever word choice, punctuation, allusion, point of view, and other elements can contribute to the satisfaction of these basic requirements.

To see how this can work even with the most restricted variations of the short form, consider this example attributed to the master of brevity himself, Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Of course, it’s what isn’t said that’s of interest in this story. The story itself seems to be the result of a much more dramatic tale that has taken place “off screen” or in scenes to which we can never be privy. It could be the last line of a much longer piece, though, now having read the line, most of anything that might have come before is not necessary. It is the ultimate in plot economy. Let’s break down this tiny piece to ensure it includes the required elements:

  • PROTAGONIST: Though not mentioned by name nor introduced through dialogue or narrative point-of-view cues like “I” or “he/she”, the reader can assume the protagonist is the author of this advertisement. You might even be able to infer that the writer is the parent of this baby, who may or may not have existed, depending on your interpretation of the shoes having “never [been] worn”.
  • CONFLICT: Clearly the baby (or lack of) is the conflict here. As readers, we can only guess when it comes to the fate of this baby. Did the baby die? Was the baby ever born? Was the baby even conceived? We don’t know the details, but we can feel that the baby (and its ultimate absence) is the most poignant part of the story.
  • OBSTACLES: The obstacles are almost entirely in the background and can only be inferred by the reader. The specifics are not important, so Hemmingway doesn’t include them, but he allows for the reader to imagine all the possible scenarios that led to the protagonist posting this ad.
  • RESOLUTION: The resolution, as I mentioned above, is this line itself. These six words are the final moment of a longer story that is not written. There is no baby to wear the shoes, so they must be sold.

Hemingway's story covers all the necessary elements, and as a result, is pretty strong story and leaves enough to the reader's imagination to create a lasting impression.

What follows are a few more specific examples of Flash Fiction from magazines and other publishing establishments that you might find interesting & inspiring.

Six-Word Story

The website Six Word Story Everyday includes visual representations for each story they post, though I’d argue that most of them do not adhere to the four basic plot elements, and some read like bumper stickers. But there are a few gems nonetheless. My favorite is:

Her friends forgot their drunken promises.

-Dylan Sneed (writer) & Jeff Rogers (Designer)

In 2006, Wired magazine asked sci-fi, horror and fantasy writers, as well as screenwriters, to pen six-word stories. Here is a long list of what they received. Here are a few that I liked.

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
 

- Joss Whedon

I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ?
 

-Neil Gaiman

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.


- Margaret Atwood

55 Fiction

If you just can’t be that concise, there are a few longer versions out there. In 1987, Steve Moss, editor of the New Times in San Luis Obisbo, announced the first annual 55 Fiction contest. In addition to the mandate that all submissions be exactly 55 words (no more, no less), the contest required that stories include setting, character(s), conflict, and resolution. Stories were allowed to have titles which were excluded from the overall word count, but that had to be seven words or less. In fact, Mr. Moss took the endeavor quite seriously and asked contestants to consider all the elements of fiction and to bring each story to a satisfying resolution. Here are the complete rules with more explanation from Mr. Moss.

You can read the most recent issue at HERE. Here are two I found interesting.

Declaration

She whispered it. It was more vocalized breath than actualized utterance. And she meant it. Clearly.

He may have heard it, but never let on.

Not that he had time to.

“I only think of murder with you around.”

-Dylan Rede of Ascadero, CA

 

These Questions Seem Kind of Specialized

We told the kittens they couldn’t come to pub trivia. Then Question 1 was “How many times do they feed you at the pound?” We wrongly said twice daily. Question 2: “Is the squirrel in the back yard that barks at Snowflake an asshole?” We answered “no.” Then Question 3: “Is string cool?” Wrong Again.

-Joel Page of Dallas, TX

The Napkin Fiction Project

In 2007, Esquire sent 250 cocktail napkins to writers all other the country and asked them to submit a story that fit on the napkin. With the exception that it be written entirely on the napkin, there were no word length limitations. Some writers wrote just a few lines, and some filled both sides or added illustrations. The Napkin Fiction Project included writers like Aimee Bender, ZZ Packer, and Rick Moody. Here are two examples.

The Professional Sasquatch

by Tao Lin

The professional sasquatch worked in midtown for the corporation that in 2006 bought American Apparel. His job was to calculate if American Apparel would make more money if they ignored shoplifters; told shoplifters to never come back in the store again; brought shoplifters into a room and took a Polaroid photo of them and banned them from the store; or took shoplifters into a room, handcuffed them, called the police, and pressed charges against them. The professional sasquatch hated his life. One day he was watching TV at Chickpea on St. Marks and someone on the Discovery Channel said he didn’t exist. One day he was on the 6 train and someone said, “Is that sasquatch?” and someone else said, “You’re stupid, sasquatch lives in Tibet, and sometimes in Montana, and doesn’t exist anyway.” After work each day the professional sasquatch ran to a forest in New Jersey then walked to a river and washed his button-down shirt and striped tie and black dress pants. He made loud noises of despair and often cried, and his tears fell on his clothes as he washed them. One day the professional sasquatch was walking out of Kmart when two men opened his bag and saw soap and said the soap, which the professional sasquatch had just bought from Duane Reade, was stolen. The two men brought the professional sasquatch into a room and told him to get into a cage that was there. “I didn’t steal the soap,” said the professional sasquatch. The two men put the professional sasquatch in a headlock and punched and kicked him and took $120 from his wallet. The police came and the professional sasquatch was handcuffed and brought to a police station and put in a cell with a toy poodle. The toy poodle stared at the professional sasquatch and made him nervous. After a while the toy poodle was taken out of the cell to get her fingerprints taken. “I am going to ass rape you so hard,” the toy poodle screamed at a cop. “I get punched in the face at Starbucks and I get thrown in jail?” the toy poodle screamed. “I thought you were in a bar fight,” said a cop. “I was taking a shit in Starbucks and when I came out someone hit me,” the toy poodle screamed. The professional sasquatch signed a paper saying he would appear in court on November 15th and was released. In New Jersey a few hours later the professional sasquatch accidentally kicked a baby salmon into a tree while washing his clothes with his feet in the river, crying a little. The baby salmon fell out of the tree. It was dead. The professional sasquatch went to it and kneeled and pet it gently. He lay and held the baby salmon and looked at it in the moonlight with round eyes. The baby salmon wasn’t really a baby. It escaped from a fish farm a few days ago. It looked like a baby because its growth had been stunted because the fish farm had been receiving fish feed tainted with strong antibiotics, e-coli, and many other things. The salmon had been dead four hours when the professional sasquatch kicked it.

Untitled

by Aimee Bender

To J. Smith,

Please accept my resignation. The printer is broken. The stationery is gone. Malty is angry, angry, angry.

I tried.

Sincerely, Janet

Plotto

This particular version comes from Tin House, a Portland, Oregon based literary magazine that has revived the 1928 book Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook. The book is an exhaustive reference of every plot imaginable, each explained in terms of (A) – the male protagonist and (B) – the female protagonist. Each week, the Tin House blog posts one of the Plotto plots and asks readers to submit a 500-word or less story using the prompt. Here are a couple of the prompts with the links to the winning story for that prompt. (Note: Seeing as it is 2012, Tin House doesn’t give a crap if (A) is male and (B) is female. Just use whatever number of protagonists the prompt requests, regardless of gender.)

  • Week 1 Prompt: {A} a needy person picks up two pairs of cast-off shoes, one pair discarded by a clergyman, and the other pair by a man of reckless nature and “shady” reputation.
  • Week 1 Winning Story
  • Week 2 Prompt: {B} finds that the knob and lock on the door of a hotel bedroom are in disrepair; the lock apparently locks itself, and the knob will not turn.
  • Week 2 Winning Story

Flash Nonfiction

As you can probably guess, there are also non-fiction versions of this oh-so-short prose form. Like fiction, nonfiction short shorts should encompass character, conflict & resolution. Just being truth is not enough to make a short piece of prose interesting. The rules of fiction apply to nonfiction, with the added intrigue of factuality. Here are a couple places where short nonfiction pieces are published regularly.

Six-Word Memoir

Similar to its fictional counterpart, the six-word memoir is just that, six true words about the writer’s life. Smith Magazine, an online “blog-a-zine” (their word, not mine) publishes six-word memoirs every day plus has regular contests for slightly longer, always true, memoirs from their readers. Here are a few recent six-word memoirs from the site.

Told I "overanalyze". Let me reflect.

By Contemplative

Book smart: know everything and nothing.

By Faexandrova

He wore dresses. This caused messes.

By John Kilmer-Purcell

Brevity

Brevity is a literary magazine devoted to that concept. As part of Lee Gutkind’s Creative Nonfiction enterprise, Editor Dinty Moore and his crew publish short, non-fiction pieces that run the gamut from a few words to a 750-word contest. The next submission deadline is May 1st for 750-word pieces of female nonfiction in response to the VIDA Count—a recent stats round-up by Vida (an organization devoted to promoting female writers and literature) that discovered a disturbing imbalance in the number of female writers who appeared in the pages of some of this country’s most notable literary publications: Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, The New Yorker, etc. Click HERE for more information.

Here are a few of the shorter offerings from the latest issue (including one from a Penn State colleague of mine, Sheila Squillante. Yep, that’s a shout out.)

Candy

by Diane Seuss

When he led me to his bedroom and I saw the Playboy centerfolds papering the walls, my eyes widened and my mouth opened like I was Bluebeard’s young wife entering the forbidden closet where her predecessors hung from meat hooks.

On Fire

by Sheila Squillante

At breakfast this morning a story about forty-three children dead in a Mexican daycare fire.

On Narrative

by John Warner

The trick, the therapist tells my father, is to construct a scenario, a narrative that encompasses all of the pictures. Discrete bits of information are hard to hold on to. Stories we can hold forever.

The Contest – LitReactor Short Shorts

Since everyone else seems to have a version, I’m making a version just for LitReactor. The rules are simple:

  • 10 words (because “LitReactor” has ten letters. You can start the words with any letter you want.)
  • 2 sentences (because LitReactor has two parts in its name)
  • Fiction or nonfiction (it’s up to the author to specify which)
  • Must include the basic elements of plot
    • Protagonist
    • Conflict
    • Obstacles
    • Resolution

Entries must be posted as comments below. Each person gets one entry. One winner will be chosen by me and that person will win:

  • A LitReactor mug
  • A stack ‘o LitReactor stickers
  • 6 month membership to the LitReactor site. (You can use it for yourself or for a friend.)
  • The winning entry will be re-posted on LitReactor for all to admire.

The winner will be chosen a week from the posting date, so enter right away! I will contact the winner to get mailing information for prizes, etc.

Have fun & get writing!

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions March 27, 2012 - 8:47pm

Fiction:

His payload released over the ravaged city. He fell swiftly.

Joaquin Pineda's picture
Joaquin Pineda March 22, 2012 - 12:38am

Non-fiction:

 

I have a pen now. Finally, I will become infinite.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. March 22, 2012 - 3:16am

Non-fiction:

 

The boy broke the horse carousel. He spun into space.

Fritz's picture
Fritz March 22, 2012 - 8:47am

'He learned his whole life. It's too bad he's dead.'

theresarogers's picture
theresarogers from Crockett, California is reading From Where You Dream March 22, 2012 - 10:08am

Fiction

In tomb--alive--hurry! Romeo pulls out his phone, smiles.

Luis Oliveira's picture
Luis Oliveira from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is reading Iliad by Homer March 22, 2012 - 2:19pm

Fiction:

- Excuse me, bloody butcher porting knives...

- I don't work here.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes March 22, 2012 - 4:26pm

Fiction:

The deceased had a cleft in his right thumbnail.

"Murder!"

miked's picture
miked from Los Angeles is reading White Noise March 22, 2012 - 6:27pm

Fiction:

I turn around and come back home. It's happening again.

megwritesstuff's picture
megwritesstuff from USA is reading Water for Elephants March 22, 2012 - 7:18pm

A tiny fiction entry:

2,500 miles to nowhere. Final graffiti: "Sucker - get a job."

ggwicz's picture
ggwicz from New York is reading The War of Art March 22, 2012 - 7:44pm

Entry for the fiction Six Word Short:

 

The fence stopped most jumpers. Most.

 

Great stories all, can't wait to read more of these as they come in!

Karl McGowan's picture
Karl McGowan from Dublin, Ireland is reading Too many to keep track of... March 22, 2012 - 7:52pm

Thanks to a quiet night at work I came up with a pair of entries. Here's my official entry.

Fiction:

Helen googled "pillow" and "suffocation" while Frank slept soundly.  Snoring.

 

This one is just for the hell of it.

Walking fast, head down, not looking.  The screaming stopped eventually.

 

Joshua Crompton's picture
Joshua Crompton from Christchurch, New Zealand is reading Distrust that particular flavor March 22, 2012 - 9:23pm

Non-fiction:

Gingerly, he released the bird. He looked down: bloody hands.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. March 22, 2012 - 10:15pm

 

You do what feels right.  But keep me in mind.

Jesse's picture
Jesse from Saskabush is reading So Dark the Night by Cliff Burns March 22, 2012 - 11:03pm

Fiction

 

Mom knelt, tied my shoes.

           Then my wrists, double looped.

 

Christopher Jaramillo's picture
Christopher Jar... from New Mexico is reading On the Road March 23, 2012 - 12:24am

Non-Fiction:

"The prose grows, as the whiskey bottle empties."

Laramore Black's picture
Laramore Black from Joplin, Missouri is reading Mario Kart 8 March 23, 2012 - 12:40am

Non-Fiction:

"The prose grows, as the whiskey bottle empties."

 

Reminds me of Bukowski's "As the spirit wanes, the form appears."

 

willbo1's picture
willbo1 March 23, 2012 - 9:09am

Fiction(?)

Outdoors worked well. Underground worked better, especially if they screamed.

James McArthur's picture
James McArthur from Potato is reading a book March 23, 2012 - 2:27pm

Fiction (thankfully)

 

The hooker was dead, devoid of blood. I panicked profusely.

Limbless K9's picture
Limbless K9 from Oregon is reading Wraeththu March 23, 2012 - 3:37pm

Her first foray into the world of men. Already displeasing.

Fiction

Scott Williams's picture
Scott Williams from Brooklyn, NY is reading 11/23/63 March 24, 2012 - 6:31pm

Fiction:

You can't call off the wedding now. The priest's here.

Nick Castilla's picture
Nick Castilla from Dallas, TX is reading About 4 or 5 different books right now March 25, 2012 - 12:19pm

Fiction:

One morning, her status read "single." I expected more warning. 

Vicki Gundrum's picture
Vicki Gundrum March 25, 2012 - 12:25pm

My sheep can't sleep. "Counting wolves doesn't work," I said.

Vicki Gundrum's picture
Vicki Gundrum March 25, 2012 - 12:41pm

Oops! I forgot to mention that my entry is FICTION, I don't own any sheep. This is the fiction entry, again:

My sheep can't sleep. "Counting wolves doesn't work," I said.

Lloyd Keldor's picture
Lloyd Keldor from Snake Mountain is reading a book by an indian shaman March 26, 2012 - 7:52pm

I gave the Witch blood.  Nothing can stop me now.

rainydaycat's picture
rainydaycat from México is reading "A Clash of Kings" by George R. R. Martin March 26, 2012 - 11:21am

He was becoming exhausted. Still the comet trailed close behind.

(Fiction)

Audra Brown's picture
Audra Brown from The Middle of Nowhere is reading Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach March 26, 2012 - 12:04pm

Fiction:

Don’t forget she never remembers. And I won't be responsible.

Alex DeBonis's picture
Alex DeBonis from the Midwest, but living in Tennessee is reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell March 26, 2012 - 7:16pm

Fiction:

"Dear Jesus, the last living dinosaur ate my Bible. Thoughts?"

cpatt30's picture
cpatt30 March 26, 2012 - 8:39pm

 Groping for the railing he slipped. Jazz trumpeter found dead.

Non-Fiction

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest March 26, 2012 - 9:03pm

There are some really great ones in here.

Here's mine:

I was killing time, but the Dolorean died. I'm fucked.

Elea Andrea Almazora's picture
Elea Andrea Almazora from A nice Asian ocuntry is reading Angel's Blood by Nalini Singh (yeah, yeah. I know) March 26, 2012 - 9:13pm

Fiction:

Alone, she flicked up a thumb.  Hours later, she’s feeding.

Colin Andrew MacDougall's picture
Colin Andrew Ma... from Suburbia is reading The Brothers Karamazov March 27, 2012 - 4:20pm

Non-fiction.

"His eyes remind me of another. I discard the thought."

Lou's picture
Lou from AMERIKUH is reading Trainspotting March 27, 2012 - 10:39pm

Nonfiction:

The vegan shows us rape racks. Up next: hallucinogen extraction.

AnyDaveWillDo's picture
AnyDaveWillDo from England is reading Lots of books March 29, 2012 - 1:44am

Fiction:

Weeping Bitterly. Chloe remembered how her virginity was taken away.

 

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby March 29, 2012 - 7:47am

Thanks everyone! The contest is now closed. I'll pick a winner this week and get in touch with that person. This was awesome! Let's do it again sometime.

Frances Gray Wilde's picture
Frances Gray Wilde from Italy is reading 1984 March 29, 2012 - 11:55am

Fiction:

She  walked  on broken glass. He mocked her bleeding feet.

Gerrylyn Mona's picture
Gerrylyn Mona April 7, 2012 - 12:25pm

-FICTION-

He  thinkshouted: I'll rape you. She heartreplied: You'll ripen me?

Amcii Cullum's picture
Amcii Cullum from Columbia, SC; now living in Atlanta, GA is reading currently, several source materials for JavaScript and JQuery April 29, 2012 - 9:03am

Take hold of the koi scaling the balances.

 

 

Amcii Cullum's picture
Amcii Cullum from Columbia, SC; now living in Atlanta, GA is reading currently, several source materials for JavaScript and JQuery April 29, 2012 - 9:05am

Antioch is no longer around us.

Cameron Lawrence Merker's picture
Cameron Lawrenc... from Twin Cities is reading Watership Down May 17, 2012 - 5:50pm

Fiction:

Fuck a 1000 words. I'll use 3: God is pathetic.

Monique Nagel's picture
Monique Nagel from Georgia, USA is reading The Archer Mayor series of books about Joe Gunther May 19, 2012 - 5:54pm

She lost him today.  She wept. 

h. l. nelson's picture
h. l. nelson from Austin, TX is reading Carlos Castaneda May 23, 2012 - 12:18pm

Fiction:

 

Gouging the trunk’s interior cracked her press-on nails. Paycheck well-spent.

h. l. nelson's picture
h. l. nelson from Austin, TX is reading Carlos Castaneda May 23, 2012 - 12:25pm

Lol, I'm so dumb. I thought this was posted on MAY 21st. Sigh. :}

Nikhil Vaddiboina's picture
Nikhil Vaddiboina from India is reading A Thousand Splendid Suns May 7, 2014 - 1:56am

Fiction:

She always loved headshots. This time, he used his pistol.