In China there’s this genre of very short fiction called ‘smoke-long’–stories of 1000 words or less that can be read in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. And there are story-forms that are even shorter than that, using only a few sentences. Blink, and you might miss them.
“I’m in two book clubs,” I say refilling my glass.
“How deliciously bourgeois!” you laugh, eyes crinkling behind two slices of cucumber and a mudpack.
See what I did there? None of that happened. But in those 25 words it did. No, I’m not a sorcerer—that’s just the magic of storytelling. In my silly story, just two sentences, there’s space to establish character, point of view, and even hint at atmosphere and setting.
Actually, I am in two book clubs—one at work where I teach; one outside. I say ‘book club’ in the loosest sense. In neither do we actually read books. The one outside of work was set up so we didn’t have to. It’s a movie club. In the other—at work—we did try reading books a few times, but it was a disaster. You know what it’s like with teachers—the day before they’re complaining they can’t find a copy of the text and calling the whole idea stupid.
Or is it students who usually do that?
Anyway, after two attempts we gave up on the whole ‘reading books in book club’ idea and started experimenting. One time we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which was a surprisingly rich text to explore. In another, we talked about our favourite recipes.
When it came my turn to choose, I thought I could solve the problem by picking three short stories and three pieces of super, super short fiction of only one or two sentences long.
The first of these short pieces was by Fredric Brown, originally published in 1948, and simply titled “Knock.”
Are you ready?
“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door...”
That’s it. Cool, huh? Well, I think so. Did the whole group bother to read it before we met up? No.
Some literary critics, including editor Robert Swartwood, have dubbed this genre ‘hint fiction.’ An article in the New Yorker argues that these stories are enjoyable not only because they suit “our shrinking attention spans, but because the best of these stories transcend the gimmick and are complete, elegant moments of fiction.” Like this incredibly short piece by Rebecca Miller, which leaves you in Zen-like state:
“As she fell, her mind wandered.”
Or there’s “Cull” by L.R. Bonehill—a menacing 24 word horror story/psychological thriller:
“There had been rumours from the North for months. None of us believed it, until one night we started to kill our children too.”
Contest over the shortest ever
“Can’t be done,” says one, slamming down ten bucks.
The rest follow. Hemingway smiles, jots a few words on a napkin, passes it to his neighbour who reads, snorts, and pushes his wager towards Hemingway—as they all do after reading his ‘novel.’
Six words—“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
51 words. Hardly hint fiction, though Hemingway’s six-word baby shoes story certainly is. It’s not true though—the whole tale about him winning a bet that he could write the shortest novel. His publisher started spreading that rumour in the 70s.
Writing short things is hard. The mathematician and philosopher Pascal once wrote when signing off in a letter:
“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
Brevity takes time. But it certainly makes your writing lighter and more exciting when you get it right.
David Gaffney—an author of the longer-form ‘micro’ or ‘flash fiction’—gives six tips on how to do it. One is “write long, then go short.” Gaffney used to use his 50-minute train journey to and from work to write. First he’d write 1000 words, and then whittle it down to 150 by journey’s-end.
Another piece of advice Gaffney gives sums up what I like best about these ‘blink and they’re gone’ stories. He writes, “Make your last line ring like a bell,” adding:
“It should leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the story but rather take us into a new place; a place where we can continue to think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant.”
It’s that final chime that I love about these finely-honed little works–being left to revel in all that resonance. Like in this speck-epic by Margaret Atwood:
“Longed for him. Got him. Shit.”