Writers Try Short Shorts!


Writers Try Short Shorts!

Some years ago, on sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I became interested in the short short story.  Or perhaps my interest goes back forty-five years to an American lit  course at the College of Wooster in which I first read Hemingway’s In Our Time, a series of  stories about Nick Adams with curious “inter-chapters” between the longer stories, little  one- and two-page pieces that don’t exactly resolve themselves or even forward the action, but  that intrigued me.  Or perhaps my interest goes back fifty-five years to the Uncle Scrooge  comic books I collected, or the Li’l Abner or Mandrake the Magician comic strips I read in the  Sunday newspapers, when I was ten.  Or perhaps it goes back sixty years to the bedtime stories  my parents read me in childhood.

At any rate, many years ago I started writing and then teaching the short short story.  I wanted  to move from writing poetry and scholarship to fiction, and this seemed a good way to do it.   I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one suddenly discovering the short short; the whole  country seemed to be discovering, or re-discovering, it as evidenced by a number of new  anthologies on the market, the most important of which was perhaps James Thomas’ and Robert  Shapard’s Sudden Fiction, which was followed by Sudden Fiction:  International, Sudden Fiction Continued, Flash Fiction and Microfiction.  In addition,  Florida State University’s “World’s Best Short Short Story Contest,” the prize for which is a  hundred dollars and a crate of Florida oranges and publication in Sundog magazine,  provided incentive for writers to try short shorts.  I tried to win that contest for a decade,  and several of my efforts subsequently appeared in my first story collection, Quick Bright Things (Mid-List Press, 2000).  This year I did finally win the “World’s Best” contest, which must  qualify me (for fifteen minutes at least) as something of an authority on the form.

So, what exactly is the short short story, and where did it come from?  Its history and its  definition remain somewhat contested.  “The World’s Best Short Short Story” competition defines  the short short as a story under 250 words; that is, basically a one-page story.  And over the  years the competition seems to have preferred stories that cover whole lifetimes, what one of  the winners, Stephen Dunning, called a “one-page novel.”  The anthology Sudden Fiction,  which includes an appendix with definitions and short short essays about the short short form by  various writers, expands the length to 1,500 words, or about five pages.  The Handbook to Literature  edited by Thrall, Hibbard, and Holman, defines it as:  “A brief short story, usually between 500  and 2,000 words with a ‘twist’ or surprise ending.”

Thus, most people would agree that the short short story is a story, and that it is shorter than  the average story.  But is the short short just a regular story made shorter, or perhaps an  unlineated poem, a kind of prose poem (Donald Finkel, on reading my short short stories in Worry,  a chapbook published by Mark Sanders, jovially referred to them as “those poems in which you  dropped the line breaks and called them stories”), and does it require a trick ending, or is  there more to it than that?

To answer that question writers and critics have looked to its history.  Where does the short short  story come from?  Perhaps the same place the short story is thought to come from:  originally the oral tradition, cave men and women in their caves trying to keep warm and ward off the terrors  of the night; Egyptian papyri in 3,000–4,000 BC; the Old and New Testaments with their histories and parables; the myths in the Iliad and Odyssey; the tales and fables of the Middle Ages; the  bawdy and erotic pieces in Boccaccio’s Decameron; Malory’s episodes of Camelot in Le Morte D’Arthur.

But it was really in the nineteenth century that the short story and the short short story got  established as art forms.  Americans like to claim that the short story is an American invention.  If that’s chauvinistic, since it ignores the work of Balzac and De Maupassant in France, and  Chekhov in Russia, among others, it does bear a grain of truth in that Americans were the first  to theorize about it and take it seriously, critically.  Both Poe and Hawthorne wrote about it,  set down rules, and perfected it as a literary construct.  Poe, particularly, in his review of  Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales in Graham’s Magazine in May 1842, applied the insights of criticism  of lyric poetry to the writing of fiction, and the serious literary short story was born.  Poe  observed that the short story must have a “unity of effect or impression,” and should be able to  be read in one-half to one hour (“at one sitting”).  In emphasizing the notion of a “single effect,”  and of a unity of plot, character, mood, and language, and in connecting the story to the lyric  poem, Poe was also, unintentionally, setting down the dicta that would be crucial to the short  short story, which can easily be read in one sitting–often in just a few minutes–and which owes much to the intensity and unity of the lyric poem.

If Poe can be credited with first critically describing the short story, O. Henry and De Maupassant  might be credited with contributing examples of the short short before it was named as a  separate literary form.  Most readers are familiar with the famous O. Henry short short  (written while he was in prison for three years for embezzling bank funds), “The Gift of the Magi,” in which a poor couple wants to give each other Christmas gifts but lacks the money. The husband  wants to buy a set of combs for his wife’s beautiful long hair, and the wife wants to buy a fob  for her husband’s pocket watch.  The husband pawns his watch to buy the combs and the wife sells  her hair to buy the fob, which provides the “trick ending” that O. Henry was famous for and that  became identified with the short short form.  De Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is structured  similarly.  A poor woman, invited to attend a party at the palace of the Ministry, and determined to dress elegantly beyond her means, borrows what she thinks is a diamond necklace from a rich  friend.  Too proud to admit it when she subsequently loses the necklace, the poor woman purchases an identical one (at an impossible expense to herself and her husband) and returns it to the  rich woman without telling her anything, and then works as a cleaning lady for ten years to pay  for it.  When she’s finally paid off the necklace, and ruined her life, she tells the rich woman  the whole story and the rich woman throws her hands up and reveals that the necklace she loaned  her friend was worthless paste. Again, the story seems defined, in part, by its twist ending.

O. Henry or De Maupassant could thus be credited with inventing the short short story, but  another source claims credit for actually naming and fostering the form.  An engaging little  book by Mildred I. Reid and Delmar E. Bordeaux, published by the Trust Building in Rockford,  Illinois in 1947, called Writers Try Short Shorts! (All Known Types with Examples), traces the  origination of the modern short short to Collier’s Weekly, an American popular magazine that in  1925 claimed to have invented it.  In the Sept. 12, 1925 issue, Collier’s Weekly announced:   “Beginning with ‘To Love and to Honor,’ Collier’s presents the greatest innovation in short-story publishing since the work of O. Henry appeared.  Each week one of the four authors listed above will contribute a very short story–half pages–from the book of life.”  The four participating  authors were Octavus Roy Cohen, Rupert Hughes, Sophie Kerr, and Zona Gale.

The stories in the Collier’s series, and particularly the more recent short shorts in Sudden Fiction and after, have tended to downplay the notion of a trick ending and instead focus  on a lyric intensity of language, a structure that moves to an epiphany, a sense of a richer and  more complex character–what  H.E. Francis in Sudden Fiction calls “O. Henry without the  cheating.”  A quick glance at what other short short writers have said about the form further begins to  clarify its definition.  Fred Chappell observes that it must be “troubling,” must provide a sense of “unease.”  John L’Heureux agrees that it should “disturb” us.  Irving Howe, in the “Introduction”  to his own anthology entitled Short Shorts, says “It is fiercely condensed, almost like a lyric  poem; it explodes in a burst of revelation or illumination; it confines itself to a single  overpowering incident; it bears symbolic weight.” According to Howe it is like most ordinary  short stories “only more so.”

Many of these writers seek to define the short short by suggesting what it’s not:  it’s not a  parable, which implies a message; it’s not a tale, which is artless, often just an episodic  action narrative; it’s not a sketch, which is fragmentary, static.  It’s not, as Russell Banks  affirms, just a short story made shorter.  It’s a form in and of itself (Banks calls short short  stories “poes” suggesting their connection to “prose” and “poesy” and perhaps to Edgar Allen Poe’s).   Robert Kelly, finally, puts his finger on what I think best describes the short short:  “neither  poetic prose nor prosy verse, but the energy and clarity typical of prose coincident in the scope  and rhythm of the poem.”  Of course, Kelly’s definition might apply equally well to the prose  poem, and because short short stories and prose poems may seem interchangeable (Russell Edson,  for example, has published a piece in the Wesleyan poetry series as poetry, and the same piece in Sudden Fiction as a short short) it might be useful to try to contrast the two.

A comparison of the world’s best prose poem of the last twenty-five years (according to me) with the world’s best short short story (according to Florida State University in 1996) serves further  to distinguish the short short as a literary form.  The prose poem is Carolyn Forché’s poem,  “The Colonel.”  Forché, I recall from a visit she made to Wisconsin some years ago, commented  that “The Colonel” wasn’t originally meant to be a poem at all; it was a scrap of notes that got  accidentally wedged in the manuscript of The Country Between Us.  When her publisher found the “notes” and praised the “poem,” she decided to retain it in the book.  At any rate, I’ve  designated it the world’s best prose poem, at least for purposes of comparison.  It’s dated May, 1978,  and it was written in response to Forché’s visit to El Salvador.

The Colonel

What you have heard is true.  I was in his house.  His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar.   His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night.  There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him.  The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.   On the television was a cop show.  It was in English.  Broken bottles were embedded in the walls  around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace.  On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores.  We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid.  The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of  bread.  I was asked how I enjoyed the country.  There was a brief commercial in Spanish.   His wife took everything away.  There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to  govern.  The parrot said hello on the terrace.  The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed  himself from the table.  My friend said to me with his eyes:  say nothing.  The colonel returned  with a sack used to bring groceries home.  He spilled many human ears on the table.  They were  like dried peach halves.  There is no other way to say this.  He took one of them in his hands,  shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass.  It came alive there.  I am tired of fooling  around he said.  As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves.   He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something  for your poetry, no? he said.  Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice.   Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

Perhaps the first question to ask is whether this is a poem at all. Forché said that, originally  at least, it wasn’t. It’s written in sentences, not lines, and seems to be a piece of prose.   How is it a poem?  One might start with the language:  it’s in blunt, declarative sentences,  relentless, unvarying, as if trapped in its own grammar, reflecting the sense of entrapment in  the situation and theme.  But the language is also beautiful, lyrical and musical.  The sound of  the words is important in and of itself.  There’s considerable internal rhyme, assonance,  alliteration:  “The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house;” “Broken bottles were  embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands  to lace.”  This is the kind of language one finds more readily in lyric poems than in short stories or essays.  The vivid evocative imagery is also typical of poetry–the pattern of food imagery,  for example, coffee, sugar, lamb, wine, mangoes, salt, bread, ears like dried peach halves. The  poem is structured on a juxtaposition of the normal and everyday, the beautiful and savory–food, TV, family–with the inhuman and horrifying, the grotesque and unsavory–violence, murder, death.  The juxtaposition creates a sense of unreality, a surrealism in what is a very casually described and realistic scene: daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol, and a man’s scooped-out kneecaps.  The  fact that the cop show is in English suggests America’s complicity in the scene.  The tone, the  author’s attitude toward the subject, further underlines the horror–it’s all reported in an  almost neutral, factual way; the restraint, the enforced objectivity, intensifies the emotion.  It’s a bleak world in which the dead ears are still “alive” in a way, still bearing witness to  atrocities. Thus, the piece has many of the elements of a poem–lyrical language important for  itself; vivid evocative imagery; an attention to subtleties of tone; surprising metaphors.

It does, of course, also tell a story, but not in the way a typical short story would.  Rather  than a character in the story, or a narrator, or the author, telling the story, this piece evokes a story.  It’s an evocation of a world, a mood, a theme. Forché is talking more to herself than  to us; we overhear her.  If a narrator were to tell this story it would have a very different feel and tone:  “I went to this colonel’s house in El Salvador.  We had dinner and I met his daughter and son.  At the end of the dinner he spilled some ears onto the floor.”  Of course, what this  version would also lack is the rhythm of poetry. The word “verse” comes from the Latin “verso”  meaning a turning. Forché’s poem is characterized by a turning and returning, a rhythm of  repetition, a recurrence of grammatical and syntactical structures:  “I was;” “His daughter  filed;” “There were;” “the moon swung;” “Some of the ears;” “Some of the ears.”  This rhythm of  repetition, as opposed to a rhythm of continuity, is typical of poetry.

Although such simplistic distinctions between poetry and prose are always suspect, they seem  useful in distinguishing Forché’s poem from Brian Hinshaw’s short short story that follows.  Forché’s piece isn’t, of course, a lyric poem; although its lyrical elements ensure its status as poetry, it would lose a great deal by being broken up into lines.  It would lose some of the  starkness of the prose, some of the impact of the juxtapositions, and some of the neutrality of  the tone.  It is, I would argue, a prose poem:  the language and rhythm and voice of poetry in  the shape and tone of prose.

Brian Hinshaw’s “The Custodian,” the World’s Best Short Short Story for 1996 according to Sundog Magazine, is, by contrast, more clearly prose.

The Custodian

The job would get boring if you didn’t mix it up a little.  Like this woman in 14-A, the nurses  called her the mockingbird, start any song and this old lady would sing it through.  Couldn’t  speak, couldn’t eat a lick of solid food, but she sang like a house on fire.  So for a kick, I  would go in there with my mop and such, prop the door open with the bucket, and set her going.  She was best at the songs you’d sing with a group–“Oh Susanna,” campfire stuff.  Any kind of  Christmas song worked good too, and it always cracked the nurses if I could get her into “Let It  Snow” during a heat spell.  We’d try to make her to take up a song from the radio or some of the  old songs with cursing in them, but she would never go for those.  Although once I had her do  “How Dry I Am” while Nurse Winchell fussed with the catheter.

Yesterday, her daughter or maybe granddaughter comes in while 14-A and I were partways into  “Auld Lang Syne” and the daughter says “oh oh oh” like she had interrupted scintillating  conversation and then she takes a long look at 14-A lying there in the gurney with her eyes shut  and her curled-up hands, taking a cup of kindness yet.  And the daughter looks at me the way a  girl does at the end of an old movie and she says “my god,” says “you’re an angel,” and now I  can’t do it anymore, can hardly step into her room.

The question I initially posed about “The Colonel” was whether it was really a poem.  Maybe it  was a short short story.  The question one might ask about “The Custodian” is whether it is  really a story.  Perhaps it’s a prose poem.  “The Custodian” seems, however, even more clearly a  story than “The Colonel” does a poem.  The language, for example, which in “The Colonel” is lyrical and dense and important for itself, in “The Custodian” is more idiomatic, conversational,  prosy–not lyrical at all.  The story is told, not evoked, and the whole is structured on a  variant of the classic story form, which moves from a beginning in the middle of things, through  some exposition and a rising action, to a turning point, climax, and resolution.  The short short story is too short to follow that whole curve, so it often follows a variant (and this may be  one major distinction between the short short and the regular short story).  Structured more like the joke, the short short often begins in the middle of things, skips the exposition or summary, proceeds with the rising action to, if not a turning point or climax, an epiphany or revelation, which is often like the punch line of a joke.

“The Custodian,” for example, starts in the middle of things by introducing the main character  and the job that defines him, and how it might get boring unless he “mixed it up a bit.”  Examples of “mixing it up” follow–how he can make his patient sing any song, how he makes fun of her,  how her daughter misinterprets what he’s doing as loving care and so unintentionally shames him  that he’ll never do it again.  The custodian has an epiphany (a punch line that suggests the joke’s on him), a spiritual revelation that changes him.  This narrative curve distinguishes Hinshaw’s  short short story from both Forché’s prose poem, and from a regular short story.

Further, character is important to Hinshaw, in ways it isn’t to Forché.  Forché, the author  herself, is the speaker of her poem, and she’s talking as much to herself as to us; a character  in the story is the speaker of “The Custodian” and he’s talking to us, the audience.  In Forché’s prose poem, the colonel is a type, and the speaker is our eyes and ears–there’s no real growth  or change or development on the part of anyone in the poem.  In Hinshaw’s short short story, the  narrator is an individual–the reader gets a clear sense of him through his idiomatic speech, his attitude to his job, and his sense of humor. And the narrator learns something about himself and life in general, and changes as a result.  The daughter’s misinterpretation of his actions makes him see his patient’s humanity and his own crassness, and he feels he will never be the same again.

So, to summarize the differences between Forché’s prose poem and Hinshaw’s short short story:   Language is used differently: in Forché, it’s an end in itself; in Hinshaw, it’s a means to an  end.  The narrative mode is different: in Forché, the narrative is evoked through a rhythm of  repetition–we overhear the narrator; in Hinshaw, the story is told through a rhythm of continuity–the narrator talks more directly to us.  The concern for character is different:  in Forché, the  characters are types and less important for themselves than for the emotions they evoke;  in  Hinshaw, the characters are more important as individuals.  The structure is different:  Forché  moves by repetition and juxtaposition; Hinshaw uses a variant of the classic story form, moving  from the middle of an action, through several scenes, to a revelation or epiphany for the central  character.

Of course, it might be argued that these distinctions may just be true of Forché and Hinshaw;  they may not characterize prose poems and short short stories in general. In fact, my students  at Wisconsin and I test them every time we read a new short piece or write one of our own.  We  also test distinctions between the short short story and the regular story, noting differences of character, style, narrative mode, tone, pacing, and dialogue, in a semester-long course I teach  annually. What began as an experiment ten years ago–a one-time-only “special topics” course–has now become a permanent part of the undergraduate creative writing curriculum.  Mildred I. Reid  and Delmar E. Bordeaux, in Writers Try Short-Shorts!  (All Known Types with Examples) long ago  argued the virtues of such a course.

It is, however, to the beginning writer that the short short story has especially endeared itself.  He finds this brief form a valuable proving ground for assimilating fiction techniques in a  most economical manner.  Here he gets the opportunity to try his wings on brief flights in preparation for the longer soarings necessary for the short story or the novel.

With the short short story, the beginning writer finds also a ready market for his work.  An  established name is not needed to sell a short short even to the best of markets.  All that is  required is that the story itself be good, and all markets are wide open to the most obscure  unknown.

For these reasons the short short story recommends itself highly also to high school and college  classes in creative writing.  In addition, the teacher of such a class finds the short short  story, once he understands its principles, simple to explain. Assignments in this form are easy  to correct and criticize, and the enthusiasm which students show for the short short makes the  teaching of it a pleasure.

There are other reasons for teaching and writing the short short.  Over the years I have found  that many beginning fiction writers, unable to sustain a narrative for more than eight to ten  pages, try, nevertheless, to do in those pages what Flannery O’Connor, or John Updike, or Joyce  Carol Oates, or William Faulkner did in thirty to forty pages.  The result is often a truncated,  unfinished piece.  The short short form encourages a young writer to match more appropriately  his or her subject matter to the space available. Using published short shorts as models for  beginning students is perhaps more realistic than expecting the students to emulate the longer  masterpieces that appear in most of the college fiction anthologies.

But even for more advanced writers, the short short can prove salutary.  Not only does it promote economy and precision of language; it can open up rich new areas of subject matter and mode.   The length of the short short, I have found, encourages young writers to experiment more, to  explore wild and often bizarre territory.  Without the sometimes daunting pressure of having to  sustain a narrative for twenty or more pages, students are more likely to pursue odd premises and take risky chances, moving outside the known and autobiographical to the unknown and fanciful.  The range and variety of theme and subject matter I find in my short short classes far exceeds  that of my regular fiction workshops in which the same kinds of stories tend to show up semester  after semester.  Short short classes always seem to promote the surprising and unusual.

Of course, it is not only students who remain intrigued with the possibilities of the short short.  Many established fiction writers today have tried their hand at the short short, and many poets have used the form, as I have, to segue into fiction.  Short shorts provide important links in  the sequence of stories I recently published as Quick Bright Things, and I currently find  myself writing a novel.  And not a one-page novel, either.

Short short stories have been around at least as long as people have had the language to make  them, and they will probably survive as far into the future as one can imagine.  Their special  popularity today may, in part, be due to the speed at which we live, in which the attention span  of “one sitting” by which Poe defined the short story, has become shorter and shorter.  But the  great short short story expands well beyond its minimalist limitations.

Jerome Stern, who administered the World’s Best Short Short Story competition for years before  his untimely death, once described what, for him, a winning short short must do.  He compared  reading it to entering, on a sunny day, a dark room in which a party was going on.  At first his  eyes, unaccustomed to the dark, would see almost nothing, just movement and shape.  Gradually,  as his eyes adjusted, he would begin to see people, and then details of furnishing and decor.   Every time he left the room for a breath of air, and then returned, he would see new things–the  party and the contents of the room would in some ways be familiar, but would also have changed.   He could go back again and again, and always find something new; it would never be quite the same.  Invite him to that party, that room, he said, and he’d be happy.  You might even end up with a  hundred dollars and a crate of Florida oranges.

Selected Bibliography

  • Fles, Barthold, ed. The Best Short Short Stories from Collier’s.  Cleveland and New York:  The World Publishing Company, 1948.
  • Forché, Carolyn.  The Country Between Us.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1981.
  • Hinshaw, Brian. “The Custodian,” Sundog (Fall, 1996).
  • Howe, Irving, and Ilana Wiener Howe, eds.  Short Shorts:  An Anthology of the Shortest Stories.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1982.
  • Reid, Mildred I., and Delmar E. Bordeaux.  Writers Try Short Shorts!  (All Known Types With Examples).  Rockford, Illinois:  The Trust Building, 1947.
  • Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds.  Sudden Fiction:  American Short-Short Stories. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1986.
  • Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds.  Sudden Fiction (Continued).  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.
  • Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds.  Sudden Fiction International.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.
  • Stern, Jerome, ed.  Microfiction.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.
  • Thomas, James, and Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka, eds.  Flash Fiction.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co., 1992.
  • Wallace, Ron.  Quick Bright Things.  Minneapolis:  Mid-List Press, 2000.
  • Wilson, Robley Jr., ed.  Four-Minute Fictions.  Flagstaff, Arizona:  Wordbeat Press, 1987.


by Ron Wallace

She worried about people; he worried about things.  And between them, that about covered it.

“What would you think of our daughter sleeping around?” she said. “The porch steps are rotting,” he replied.  “Someone’s going to fall through.”

They were lying in bed together, talking.  They had been lying in bed together talking  these twenty-five years:  first, about whether to have children–she wanted to (although there  was Down’s Syndrome, leukemia, microcephaly, mumps); he didn’t (the siding was warped; the roof  was going fast)–and then, after their daughter was born, a healthy seven pounds eleven ounces  (“She’s not eating enough;” “The furnace is failing”), about family matters, mostly (“Her friends are hoodlums, her room is a disaster;” “The brakes are squealing, the water heater’s rusting out.”)

Worry grew between them like a son, with his own small insistencies and then more pressing demands.  They stroked and coddled him; they set a place for him at the table; they sent him to  kindergarten, private school, and college.  Because he failed at nearly everything and always  returned home, they loved him.  After all, he was their son.

“I’ve been reading her diary.  She does drugs.  She sleeps around.” “I just don’t think I can fix them myself.  Where will we find a carpenter?”

And so it went.  Their daughter married her high school sweetheart, had a family, and  started a health food store in a distant town.  Although she recalled her childhood as fondly as  anyone–how good her parents had been and how they worried for her, how old and infirm they must  be growing, their house going to ruin–she rarely called or visited.  She had worries of her own.

–from Quick Bright Things (Mid-List Press)

“Writers Try Short Shorts!” was originally published in the AWP Chronicle.

For information on ordering Wallace’s Quick Bright Things, please select Publisher Information.