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Short Fiction

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English Literature

When did you hear your first fairy tale? When did you tell your own first story? Stories have been handed down from generation to generation. Sometimes they function as a warning (this is what will happen if...), sometimes they explain things (why the sun rides across the sky, why there are rainbows). To survive the passage of time, these stories had to entertain:

‘It is immensely old - goes back to neolithic times, perhaps to palaeolithic…The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping round the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next they either fell asleep or killed him. We can estimate the dangers incurred when we think of the career of Scheherazade in somewhat later times…’—E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927

As E.M. Forster suggests, the short story has been around a long time. The reason may be found in his key phrase, ‘What would happen next?’

What is short fiction?

Short fiction is any story that is shorter than a book (around 7,500 words).

By the 18th/19th century, the short story had become a popular form of reading entertainment (Charles DickensTo Be Read at Dusk, for instance); often these short stories were miniature novels, with plot and characters condensed into as few words as possible.

Towards the end of the 19th century, however, authors like Henry James and G.K.Chesterton saw its potential for another kind of storytelling – one that could give a glimpse of life rather than a fully plotted narrative, which meant a lot of the ‘new’ short stories could be written without a plot, i.e., they were ‘plotless’:

‘A short story of to-day has the air of a dream…The moderns, in a word, describe life in short stories because they are possessed with the sentiment that life itself is an uncommonly short story, and perhaps not a true one.’—G.K.Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 1906

The short story was a popular medium for tales of the supernatural and the extraordinary as well as fables and descriptions of everyday life.

Between the late 19th century and early 20th, the short story developed an identity of its own and was taken up by writers, including:

Rudyard Kipling wrote over 350 short stories between the 1890s (Plain Tales from the Hills) and the 1930s (Limits and Renewals) and was considered to have reinvented and elevated the short story form. He combined the modernist realism style with traditional elements of suspense and plotting while deliberately leaving out crucial elements and details. This technique helps keep the reader questioning and wondering long after they have finished reading:

‘A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but everyone feels the effect.’—Rudyard Kipling, Something of Mysefl, 1937

Joseph Conrad, like Kipling, combined the conventional with the experimental: he adopted the framed narrative, or story-within-a-story, a technique which he later used for many of his novels. This is first seen in his short story Karain: A Memory, about an adventurer haunted by his past and by the ghost of a friend he killed. The short story is the first in his Tales of Unrest (1898) and poses questions not just about memory but about Imperialism and colonialism.

With James Joyce’s The Dubliners (1914), the short story was propelled to the forefront of modern storytelling. Joyce introduced his concepts of ‘epiphany’ and an ascetic prose style. The stories include themes of childhood, growing up, and public life, and close with The Dead, which has been described by some as the finest short story in English. The story describes love, grief, and concludes with the main character experiencing the realization that all of us will one day be no more than a memory.

Epiphany: a sudden, personal realization or a moment when you understand something with absolute clarity.

Ascetic: austere, self-disciplined, restrained.

Short fiction in the 20th century

The tradition continued into the 1920s and 1930s with anthologies and collections of short works by various emerging or established authors, including:

  • Ernest Hemingway (In Our Time, 1925)

  • Somerset Maugham (Cosmopolitans: Very Short Stories, 1936).

  • James Thurber (Fables for Our Times, 1940; My World – and Welcome to It, 1942)

Hemingway developed a very similar approach to Kipling’s, which he describes when he explains leaving out the real ending of his short story ‘Out of Season’:

‘This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.’—Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, 1964)

Somerset Maugham was a travel writer and a novelist and playwright; his short stories were published in magazines like Cosmopolitan and The Smart Set.

He wrote in a clear and simple style about the exotic countries he visited. His collection The Trembling of a Leaf contained six stories of the South Sea Islands, and his plain, accessible writing combined with a sharp sense of humour made them an instant success.

James Thurber, meanwhile, was drawing cartoons and writing short stories for The New Yorker. His style was a combination of simplicity, easy charm and humorous realism in observing human nature, particularly in urban settings. He is probably best known for his short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1939), which features a hen-pecked, day-dreaming urban dweller during a brief episode in his life. The story has been adapted twice for the film (1947 and 2013).

Some of these stories might be just a hundred words long yet can deliver a distinct narrative and atmosphere. Those stories with fewer than 1000 words can also be called Flash Fiction.

Flash fiction

Flash fiction is a very short story that still has characters and a plot despite its brevity.

The term flash fiction evolved in the 1990s, although the form goes back to ancient times (think of Aesop’s Fables).

Chapter V from Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925) describes the execution of ministers during a civil war in just 129 words, effectively conveying the feel and tone of the moment without exaggeration, and delivering a compelling insight into a moment of extreme crisis and suffering.

Somerset Maugham’s ‘Appointment in Samarra’ (1933) is just under 200 words and is a wry joke about attempting to escape destiny.

A merchant’s servant sees Death in the marketplace of Baghdad and returns to his master, much shaken, begging to borrow a horse to ride out to the desert of Samarra, where Death will not find him. The master agrees, and the servant rides off. Later the merchant goes to the market where he sees Death and asks, ‘Why did you frighten my servant?’ Death replies that he was amazed to see the servant in Baghdad as he had an appointment with him in Samarra. Maugham adds an extra twist to the tale by making Death the narrator.

Thurber’s ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ is a fable with a moral about trying too hard and has a word count of 274 words.

A bear in the forest starts by being a no-fuss character who goes into the bar for the occasional drink. This becomes a habit until he is an alcoholic, kicking over the umbrella stand at home, knocking down the lamps and ramming his elbows through the window, before falling asleep on the carpet, and his family are very worried.

The bear reforms, becomes a temperance lecturer and invites friends round to show them how much better he is since he gave up drinking: he stands on his head, turns cartwheels, kicks over the umbrella stand, knocks down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows, before falling asleep on the carpet, and his family are very worried.

‘Moral: you might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward.’—James Thurber, Fables for Our Times, 1940)

Difference between flash fiction and short story with examples

Flash fiction are short stories and they can be loosely categorised according to the length of the story:

  • Short story (up to 7,500 words)

  • Sudden fiction (just over 1000 words)

  • Short short story/flash fiction (up to approximately 1000 words)

  • Postcard fiction (between 250 and 500 words)

  • Micro-fiction (up to 300 words)

The average short story hovers the 7,500 words mark. Works longer than this qualify as novellas, novels, or books.

  • Mark Twain’s humorous ‘A Telephonic Conversation’ (1880), at 810 words, qualifies as flash fiction or short story.
  • ‘The Open Window’ by Saki (H.H.Munro, 1911) at 1,214 words could be called an example of sudden fiction.
  • Kate Chopin’s ‘Dr Chevalier’s Lie’ (1891), at 385 words long, could be called an example of postcard fiction (although we don’t know whether she intended it for that purpose!).
  • Franz Kafka’s micro-fiction ‘Give It Up’ creates the eerie sense of a dream gone wrong somewhere in a paragraph of 128 words only.

Flash fiction online

The internet has helped encourage the growth of flash fiction, which continues to be an excellent tool for both published and unpublished writers. Flash fiction is a handy way of practising and building a writer's voice; it also helps writers make themselves known to fresh readers. Various online websites are dedicated to flash fiction, including Flash Fiction Online and Word Riot.

Microfiction has grown in popularity, with websites and magazines dedicated to the art of writing a whole story in less than 500 words, or as few as 55 words.

55Fiction is a competition set by the New Times newspaper in California. Stories of up to 55 words may be submitted.

Best Microfiction (www.bestmicrofiction.com) focuses on stories of maximum 400 words in length.

Perhaps the shortest type of microfiction is the six-word story.

Six-word stories

‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.’

Although this poignant example of microfiction has been attributed to Hemingway, no direct evidence exists to prove it. Perhaps it was inspired by article headings and announcements from the 1920s and 1930s.

One example is: ‘Baby carriage for sale. Never used’ (from Brooklyn Home Talk, 1921).

Hint fiction

The idea of six words telling a story inspired Robert Swartwood to put together a set of stories of maximum 25 words each. He called these stories hint fiction because they suggest or ‘hint at’ a larger, more complex story.

Several websites dedicate sections to hint fiction, including nanoism.net, narrativemagazine.com and monkeybicyle.net.

Dandelions Actually

He showered her with roses but never asked her favorite flower.”—R. Gatwood,2011, monkeybicycle.net)

The six-word story has also led to the six-word memoirs challenge, set up by the online magazine Smith where people sum up their lives in six words. On Twitter, people can share #micromemoirs or important moments and memories from their lives.

Twitterature

A portmanteau of Twitter and literature, comprising poems and fiction, of up to (currently) 280 characters.

Twitterature includes mini-sagas, six-word stories and #Twaiku (from TWitter and hAIKU). Twaiku is a haiku posted on Twitter, using up to 280 characters and 17 syllables.

Short fiction can take on many different forms and remains a solid basis for sharing experiences, philosophy and ideas, whether online or in print.

Short Fiction - Key takeaways

  • By the 19th century, the short story was a popular form of reading entertainment.
  • The ‘traditional’ short stories were like miniature novels.
  • The ‘new’ short stories of the late 19th century could be ‘plotless’.
  • Flash fiction is a very short story that still has characters and a plot despite its brevity.
  • Notable flash fiction writers include Somerset Maugham, Kate Chopin, Ernest Hemingway, and H.H.Munro (Saki).
  • Flash fiction can be divided into subcategories based on length, including sudden fiction, postcard fiction and micro-fiction.

Short Fiction

Short fiction is any type of fiction shorter than 7,500 words.

Microfiction – the six-word story, for example.

Short fiction is a growing genre that covers a range of topics including the supernatural, fables, and everyday life.

James Joyce’s The Dead (1914), Somerset Maugham’s ‘Appointment in Samarra’ (1933), Thurber’s ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ (Fables for our Time, 1940), etc.

Short stories are considered to be fiction stories.

Final Short Fiction Quiz

Question

What is short fiction: 


Show answer

Answer

Short fiction is any type of fiction shorter than 7,500 words.

Show question

Question

What is the shortest type of fiction ?

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Answer

Microfiction - the six-word story.

Show question

Question

Is short fiction a genre?

Show answer

Answer

Short fiction is a growing genre that covers a range of topics including the supernatural, fables and everyday life.

Show question

Question

What are short stories examples? 

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Answer

James Joyce The Dead (1914) , Somerset Maugham’s ‘Appointment in Samarra’ (1933), Thurber’s ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ (Fables for our Time,1940) etc.

Show question

Question

What is Flash Fiction?



Show answer

Answer

Flash fiction is a very short story that despite its brevity still has characters and a plot.

Show question

Question

Give some examples of flash fiction writers.



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Answer

Somerset Maugham, Kate Chopin, H.H. Munro(Saki).

Show question

Question

Saki’s short story ‘The Open Window’ is about 1,214 words long; what category of flash fiction does it fit?

Show answer

Answer

Sudden fiction.

Show question

Question

Kate Chopin’s story  'Dr Chevalier’s Lie’ is 385  words long; what category of flash fiction does it fit?

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Answer

Postcard fiction.

Show question

Question

True or false? ‘Baby carriage for sale. Never used’ is a six-word story written by Ernest Hemingway.

Show answer

Answer

False. It’s a 1921 ad from a newspaper called Brooklyn Home Talk.

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Question

Complete the following: Flash fiction can be divided into subcategories based on ... including: ... fiction, postcard fiction and ...-fiction.


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Answer

Flash fiction can be divided into subcategories based on length including: sudden fiction, postcard fiction and micro-fiction.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Hint Fiction is a story in ... words that suggests or ‘hints at’  a ...and more ... story.

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Answer

Hint Fiction is a story in 25 words that suggests or ‘hints at’  a bigger and more complex story.

Show question

Question

True or false? The term flash fiction evolved in the 1980s, although the form goes back to ancient times.

Show answer

Answer

False: The term flash fiction evolved in the 1990s, although the form goes back to ancient times.

Show question

Question

True or false? Mark Twain’s ‘A Telephonic Conversation’ is 810 words long and qualifies as postcard fiction.  

Show answer

Answer

False: Mark Twain’s ‘A Telephonic Conversation’ is 810 words long and qualifies as flash fiction or short short story. 

Show question

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