On short-short stories

Short-shorts. Flash. Very short stories. Micro-fiction. Vignettes. Fragments.

There are countless names for stories that want to be told–but whose characters don’t feel like talking for very long. They’re not any less important; they don’t say any less than stories 10 times their length. They are just satisfied with presenting you with a scene, or an image, and asking you to infer what you will, rather than collaging many scenes and images together and asking you to do the same.

To be clear, I love long-form fiction, journalism, and stories. Tell me to settle down with a novel, and I’ll happily pull out the latest one I’m working through, and sit for hours. Last Wednesday, for example, I read Lolita straight through, in one shot, without so much as getting up to shift positions. Yet I most often choose to write, and to read, short-short stories. I say this for no other reason than to emphasize that flash fiction is not the result of laziness, and it’s not written in an attempt to appeal to the mass market’s waning attention span. Short-shorts are not the ‘commercial breaks’ between longer works.

Robert Shapard writes about the ‘remarkable reinvention’ of short-short stories in the most recent issue of World Literature Today. Most interesting to me, as a young writer, are his comments on the art of learning to write via flash:

Is this a good way to learn writing? It can be. Consider Jayne Anne Phillips, whose reputation was made with a legendary collection of short fiction, Black Tickets, and whose recent novel Lark and Termite was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. As a young poet, long before the Internet, she taught herself to write by writing one-page fictions, finding a “secretive and subversive” freedom in the paragraph, because she filled its “innocent, workaday” form with powerful, lyrical images, which build on each other. “Good one-page fictions have a spiral construction: the words circle out from a dense, packed core, and the spiral moves through the words, past the boundary of the page,” she says. “Fast, precise, over. And not over. The one-page fiction should hang in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke.”

In my scholarly life, I’m working on an essay about fragmentation in literature post-World War I. Does the story of the short-short begin here–just a few decades after short stories were popularized due to the advent of weekly and monthly magazines which featured both stories and longer works split into serialized segments? Do they owe at debt to the vignette, or to the age-old fable or parable?

The short-short format is of interest to me in both fiction and film. Take, for example, this piece “Saying Good-bye” (“Rastanak” in Croatian).

Could you say the same thing with a feature film? Of course. Should you? Would it enhance the message? Would it change anything? Sure, you could get more details with a longer, more developed piece. You could get inside the character’s head more. But the humor comes from not getting in the character’s head. From watching the scene unfold as if you were a spectator. From joining the writer and director in a knowing, and empathetic, chuckle at young, over-zealous love.

While I plan to continue to read, write, and translate short fiction as time allows, I also plan to explore more short film. It’s a form favored by the avant gardes of the 1920s and ’30s, whose work I am studying now for one of my M.A. reading lists. But it’s also ongoing and evolving (in more straightforward ways) all around us. On November 24, the Cable Car Cinema in Providence will feature an 80-minute selection of international short-shorts in its Short Short Story Film Festival. If you’re in the New England area, I highly recommend checking it out!

2 thoughts on “On short-short stories

  1. bejamin4 says:

    As I recently came into the discovery of flash fiction, by flash writer Randall Brown, I too, see the value in flash fiction. It really is a good place to try new things that one might not attempt in a long novel. I think poetry, too, can strengthen a novelist’s word choice and individual sentences, whereas flash fiction pieces help improve not only those things but overall structure.

    And I like what you said about the short movies. Sometimes studying other medium is more important then studying the medium in which an artist works.

    1. kristinareardon says:

      Thanks for your comment! In addition to being a great form in and of itself, you’re right that it’s a low stakes testing ground for bigger things, in a lot of ways. I’m curious as to whether or not someone could develop a novel from a seed of a story, like a flash piece… And looking at other artistic media (film, music, visual art, etc) is always inspiring to me. Glad to hear that resonates with you, too!

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