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

Craig Towsley's picture
Craig Towsley from Montreal, QC, Canada is reading The Dain Curse - Dashiell Hammett March 21, 2012 - 8:48am

Hello, here's my entry for the contest. Fiction.

"He swallowed nervously, asked her out. She laughed, said no."

Later gators.

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide March 21, 2012 - 8:49am

Hemingway is spelled with one "m."  Just sayin'.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 21, 2012 - 9:04am

Ralph picked a hair from his teeth, the waitress smiled.

Not really an entry considering that I write for the site, but a cool experiment.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson March 21, 2012 - 9:23am

His correction, though well intentioned, alienated his peers. Just sayin'.

BludgeonBob's picture
BludgeonBob from America - Coast to Coast is reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell March 21, 2012 - 9:23am

Rachel sees no toilet paper and praises soap's inventor.

alexgamen's picture
alexgamen from Argentina is reading 1Q84; The Way of Kings March 21, 2012 - 9:25am

Fiction:

"He saw her go limp. That didn't stop him, though."

PandaMask's picture
PandaMask from Los Angeles is reading More Than Human March 21, 2012 - 7:44pm

Fiction:

Klaus dove from screeching artillery. The war ended, Klaus survived.

Pau Ojeda's picture
Pau Ojeda from Monterrey, México is reading Anna Karenina March 21, 2012 - 9:38am

Fiction:

He smiled. She gasped. He hadn't seen the trailer coming.

jfblanchet's picture
jfblanchet from Philadelphia is reading In Cold Blood March 21, 2012 - 9:44am

She took her last sip. Noticing the vile, she choked. 

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide March 21, 2012 - 9:53am

Nice one, Josh (from NY, reading Moby Dick)!  I figured that comment would go over like a fart in church.  I just couldn't help myself.  Hopefully, I can redeem myself with my forthcoming entry.

Martijn Siemes's picture
Martijn Siemes January 25, 2013 - 1:18pm

.

Christine J. Schmidt's picture
Christine J. Schmidt from Los Angeles, CA March 21, 2012 - 9:56am

nonfiction entry:

She wasn’t ready the first time. He said ‘goodbye’ again.

Andi Michael's picture
Andi Michael March 21, 2012 - 9:58am

Okay, here goes:

 

The television still talked to her. The doctors didn’t anymore.

 
Jake Huber's picture
Jake Huber from the Lehigh Valley, PA is reading Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary March 21, 2012 - 10:11am

Alone, she poured the grapes of wrath. "My great depression."

ashmogg's picture
ashmogg from Toronto is reading Blindsight, Peter Watts March 21, 2012 - 10:15am

Non-fiction:

He knew the cat had aids. It didn't stop him.

Lolapinkcincy's picture
Lolapinkcincy from Ohio is reading lots of non-fiction March 21, 2012 - 10:31am

Fiction:

Holly was drowning in the rearview.  Sighing, I drove away.

Raelyn's picture
Raelyn from California is reading The Liars' Club March 21, 2012 - 10:38am

Okay then, fiction:

The ocean looks serene, soothing. I bid my husband, farewell.

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 March 21, 2012 - 10:57am

Fiction:

Our flock was dead. We gathered their tithings and split.

MaSmylie's picture
MaSmylie from London, England is reading Haunted March 21, 2012 - 10:57am

Fiction

He orgasms, broken. She was never going to be right. 

thirstysailor's picture
thirstysailor from Sussex, UK is reading Infinite Jest March 21, 2012 - 11:00am

Fiction:

There was a smell. It flowed from under the door.

tudek's picture
tudek March 21, 2012 - 11:03am

Nonfiction:

The bed was made in vain. One pillow will remain.

Tim's picture
Tim from Philadelphia is reading approximately eight different books. Most unsuccessfully. March 21, 2012 - 12:12pm

Usually twisting the knife was just technique. Not this time.

Paradox Hoax's picture
Paradox Hoax March 21, 2012 - 11:39am

Sorry about the double post, doing so from phone and that's always a joy.

Paradox Hoax's picture
Paradox Hoax March 21, 2012 - 11:42am

Fictional entry:

Sweet prey, I call this hunting. She calls it shopping.

And just for fun, and not an official entry, a more acronymistic approach...

Little ingenious tyrants. Rarely ever are conniving toddlers officially reprimanded.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow March 21, 2012 - 11:38am

Ah, Christopher: Yes, only one 'm'. I always want to put an extra one there...maybe it's because Hemingway's cat had extra toes.

Josh: Thanks! [Fist Bump]

Everyone else: Nice work! I have my work cut out for me already. If you haven't already, tell your friends to enter, too. (Or don't tell them, espcially if they are short form geniuses with six-toed kitty cats.)

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide March 21, 2012 - 11:55am

Fiction:

He had forgotten she knew how to shoot.  She hadn't.

Laramore Black's picture
Laramore Black from Joplin, Missouri is reading Mario Kart 8 March 21, 2012 - 12:29pm

Fiction:

My thoughts were staircases spiraling into descent. I'm gravely missed.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading Zombie Bake Off by Stephen Graham Jones March 21, 2012 - 12:31pm

Fiction:

Misery loves company. So why is it I'm always alone.

.'s picture
. March 21, 2012 - 12:49pm

EDIT

Sam Florence's picture
Sam Florence from Melbourne, Australia is reading Late for tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi March 21, 2012 - 12:42pm

Non-fiction -

Awake. I saw his back first, wondering who he was.

repeattheempty's picture
repeattheempty from Aberdeen, Scotland is reading Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower March 21, 2012 - 12:56pm

Fiction:

Her cheating black heart broke his.  His mace pulverised hers.

Insomniac Jack's picture
Insomniac Jack March 21, 2012 - 1:13pm

Fiction:

She tumbled back through time. This time, she'd stop him.

peespee63's picture
peespee63 from Scotland, UK is reading The Great Gatsby March 21, 2012 - 1:15pm

Fiction:

He drank for a while, alone. His life, eroding slowly.

Daniel Joseph Hanrahan's picture
Daniel Joseph H... March 21, 2012 - 1:33pm

Fiction:

She moved out yesterday. Even wisteria bloomed in her wake.

Werus's picture
Werus from Portland, OR is reading Secret Acension March 21, 2012 - 7:17pm

Fiction:

Hair strands wait years between pages. She's still with me.

bird bones's picture
bird bones March 21, 2012 - 3:33pm

I'm one scream from salvation. The oxygen runs out first.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 21, 2012 - 4:09pm

RE: the famous baby shoe story - The baby may not have died; maybe the shoes were too small, or maybe the parents received too many pairs as gifts - I refute that the six words actually comprise a story anymore than me saying, "Sometime, somewhere, a baby has died," (which isn't a story by your four-point definition.)

Entry, Non-Fiction - The truth lives its life incognito.  We are its disguise.

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading A Million Little Fibers by Steven McTowelie March 21, 2012 - 4:24pm

Fiction:

"Perhaps a drink after your workout? There’ll surely be absinthe."

EdVaughn's picture
EdVaughn from Louisville, Ky is reading a whole bunch of different stuff March 21, 2012 - 4:44pm

Fiction:

She died and I dined. For life I am confined.

Peter Leroy's picture
Peter Leroy March 21, 2012 - 4:51pm

The bathroom light struck her swollen cheeks.  She was crying.

John Thomas Plunkett IV's picture
John Thomas Plu... from Chelmsford Massachusetts is reading 11/22/63 March 21, 2012 - 5:25pm

"Eviction"

He took offense and should have. I meant him to.

 

 

Liam David's picture
Liam David from Illinois is reading The Crying of Lot 49 -Thomas Pynchon March 21, 2012 - 6:17pm

"We're exhausted and cold. Burn the bus tires at dawn!"

Fiction

Kevin Wallace's picture
Kevin Wallace is reading The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson March 21, 2012 - 5:51pm

Muzzle flash brightened her kitchen and hopes.  He collapsed first.

A fiction entry, thankfully :).  

Dana C. Kabel's picture
Dana C. Kabel March 21, 2012 - 6:13pm

Fiction:

 

Minding his own business, he continued reading while she choked.

Jason Van Horn's picture
Jason Van Horn from North Carolina is reading A Feast For Crows March 21, 2012 - 6:18pm

Fiction:

Nobody listens. A sliced off tongue solves that pesky problem.

mcvaughn's picture
mcvaughn from Shelbyville, Kentucky is reading Vinyl Destination from Adam Millard March 21, 2012 - 7:03pm

Fiction

Her words were meant to hurt. Yet I remain unscathed.

Daniel W Broallt's picture
Daniel W Broallt from Texas is reading The Emerald Mile March 21, 2012 - 7:07pm

Fiction:

Music makes emotion, but cheats the build of feeling.

Louder?

Fester McFardle's picture
Fester McFardle March 21, 2012 - 7:33pm

Fiction
The sky was blue until the flash. Red it became.

Jaime Alexis Stathis's picture
Jaime Alexis Stathis from Missoula, Montana is reading The Best American Essays 2011 March 21, 2012 - 10:13pm

Non-fiction: Should’ve been more specific. Not what I signed up for.

Tsapna Singh's picture
Tsapna Singh from India is reading Chazal's Senz-Plastique March 21, 2012 - 10:27pm

Fiction:

Centrepieces exhaled hyseria. A microcosmic pileup staged in the garage.