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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

This Many Words Can Be Enough

A student was instructed to write a story of utmost brevity, involving religion, royalty, sex and mystery.

The inspired creation he came up with was this: “My God,” the queen said. “I am pregnant! I wonder who did it.”

Now that the average attention span … Hang on a sec, let me get my phone … Sorry, what was I just saying? Oh yes … Now that the average attention span has been measured and is, empirically and incontrovertibly, 3.245 seconds, this is precisely the kind of fiction that is in demand.

There has been a surge of enthusiasm for short, short stories (also known as flash fiction, micro fiction, compressed fiction, sudden fiction and “is that it?”). At the low end, the “story” may be as few as six words, but more often they are a couple of hundred words long.

Flash fiction is often linked to a competition, a website or a compendium. Esquire magazine offered the Esquire and Aspen Writers’ Foundation Short Short Fiction Contest. Entrants were given just 79 words to do their thing.

The Guardian asked well-known writers to try their hand at writing a story within Twitter’s 140-character limit. I liked this one from novelist Jenny Colgan: “You were once so beautiful I ignore the ear hair now; the liver spots on shaking hands. Besides, I’ve always closed my eyes when we kiss.”

There have been numerous Twitter-related short story competitions. Colgan’s little story has humour and pathos. In less experienced hands, these very short stories tend to have a pat one-liner feel. Often there’s a dramatic incident – a gunshot, a car crash – to inject power in a limited word count, and not a whole lot else. While they risk being unsatisfying and tricksy, the best are surprising, nimble, concentrated. They are the whittled-down bones of an entire story, with the rest implied, hovering alongside or wandering about, unsaid.

Writing short is hard (although maybe not as hard as 1500 pages of Infinite Jest). An entire narrative – a love affair, a death, a realisation – must live in a handful of sentences. There are seldom more than two characters, and virtually no characterisation. The story is usually centred on a single act. Every word matters. When it takes its place, there’s one fewer left to work with. Every word, even a pronoun, has to do its job, and more, if it’s to earn its keep. Even punctuation is important – a semi-colon can save you an “and” and provide a dramatic pause, a juxtaposition, a momentary irony.

These works are the literary equivalent of a very simple line drawing, in which Picasso makes two squiggles and a dash into a telling portrait, about which you ponder, “How did he do that?”

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, compiled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a lovely example of the genre at its best. Thousands of stories were submitted and 62 chosen. Artists would illustrate a story that appealed. The resulting collaborations are poignant, poetic and delightful to look at. By way of example: “The doctor’s wife ate two apples a day, just to be safe. But her husband kept coming home.”

Last word to Ernest Hemingway (I’m sure he always had it anyway). He famously – and perhaps apocryphally – challenged writer friends to write a story using only six words. Legend has it that he won the contest with the story: “For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.”

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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