“Short” is shorter than it used to be

How long should a “short story” be? Old question, but one I’ve been pondering again in regard to some of my own published fiction.

One of my pieces (“A Sinking Heart”) has just won a prize in the international Letter Review short story competition; another {“Listing”) was a finalist for the recent Armadale Writers Award; and another (“I dispettosi amanti”) has now appeared in the anthology Snatches of an Aria. These vary in length from just over 400 words to just under 2500.

“A Sinking Heart,” approx. 1320 words, was much longer when first drafted, and only came into sharp focus after I’d gradually whittled it down until every remaining word was essential to the narrative purpose. I’m delighted that the judges of the Letter Review Prize make the following comment on this story and the other two place-getters (one by an Irish writer, one by an American):

The winning stories moved us deeply, made us smile, gave us so much to think about, and inspired us with their astonishing mastery of craft.

You can read “A Sinking Heart” here.

And “Listing,” which the Armadale award judge found “poignant and compelling,” is here.

19th-century writer Edgar Poe, a pioneer of the modern short story, said it should be capable of perusal at one sitting in order to sustain “unity of impression.” But William Saroyan, a later practitioner, remarked that some readers can sit for longer than others. These days, when most of us have a touch of ADHD, very few people seem able to immerse themselves in a fictitious prose narrative without keeping a distracted eye on the time. So, catering for a fidgety society, stories have generally become shorter. Not a bad thing if it leads to more concise writing. The revision process for one of mine, “Promises,” brought it down from about 3500 words to 2000 — the form in which it was published in Backstory a few months ago — and that cropping strengthened its impact, I think. You can read it here.

Most contemporary novels now look skinny compared with those written a century ago — or would, if their actual slimness wasn’t disguised by large fonts and wide-spaced lines. Short stories, too, are shrinking. Many literary magazines and prize competitions now tend to favour “flash fiction,” a term that has been around for about 30 years to designate extremely short stories and has proved especially popular in online publications. But how short is “extremely short”? Editors usually stipulate a maximum word count for these micro-narratives: sometimes 500 words, sometimes 200, sometimes even less.

The shorter it is, the more likely to be read as closely as a poem — or so its author hopes! One of mine, “Cured,” published in Flash Frontier, is under 150 words and aims at a quasi-poetic compression: here it is.



4 thoughts on ““Short” is shorter than it used to be

  1. Ian, you make an interesting point regarding the extent to which we now all suffer from a level of effective ADHD, and read with an eye always on the time. Indeed I suspect we do most things that way. Retirement remains a slowly diminishing number of years off for me, but when it comes I hope to be able to read immersively again (and paint, and… ) and do so simply for as long as the mood takes me.

  2. Good to hear from you again, Paul. I’m glad my remarks about distractibility resonated for you. I’m sure that for you, eventual “retirement” won’t mean idleness.

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