On Super-Short Fiction

So you’ve seen me talking (at length) about stories that get away from me, and NaNoNovels that are over 100,000 words and still don’t include all the plot points they’ll need (and will need to be cut down extremely). . .

Obviously, I tend towards long forms for writing. My novels are usually 100k or longer, and often part of larger worlds with either prequels/sequels or companion books. My ‘short stories’ can push closer to novella lengths if I let them. (Sometimes even if I had no intention of letting them.)

short extension of tape measure angled on a blank page in a notebook (taken by Serena Saint-Marceaux)I write long, this is probably a point that can hardly be over-emphasised. I am well aware of this. And today, I want to talk to you about writing super-short fiction?

Indeed I do. Because on the flip-side, I also write a ton of teeny-tiny stories, and I think that they are a fabulous form of practise in a lot of ways for a writer, no matter what your preferred length of story to tell may be.

Writing super-short stories can be intimidating, and is admittedly tricky, particularly if it isn’t a medium you’ve explored much before. It has done so much for me as a writer, however, and I honestly love working at them.

Perhaps one of the strongest sticking points for short works, both that I have found in my own experience and that I have heard from others, is how to actually tell a story in such a limited amount of space. (I’ve also heard that it’s impossible, but that just simply isn’t true.)

Not only is it more than possible to tell a complete story – even to draw people into it and immerse them in your world, your character, the emotion of the story – in very few words, I have found it to be an excellent source of writing practise in a number of ways.

Especially if your natural style – as does mine – tends towards the . . . longer side of things.

How short is short? Well. . . My thoughts on super-short fiction are likely to be most applicable to works under 500 words, although with some slightly higher wordcounts it very much depends on the style of the story. Many of my own personal super-short works range from 100-300 words.

I know, that really isn’t much space, particularly if you wish to tell a story with an actual plotline – even a small one. In fact, I’ve heard some people claim that only vignettes can truly tell any kind of story when you have that little space – that you could only possibly show a tiny ‘slice’ of a ‘real’ story or even scene in so few words.

But don’t let that limit intimidate you too much! Those small pieces, tiny glimpses into a larger story, can be a wonderful place to start, and fun and insightful stories in their own right, but don’t be afraid to try and tell a ‘proper’ story, either. You may just find yourself surprised at how much you can convey in a super-short piece.

That is, in fact, one of the ways in which I find super-short fiction to be great practise – conveying emotion, and doing it economically, without requiring a lot of build-up to get a reader deeply involved in the world or the character. After all, if you’re limited to a few hundred words, and you want a resolution (be it happy or tragic) as well as an emotional upheaval . . . well, then, you haven’t words to waste!

Writing super-short fiction has taught me so much about tightening phrases, condensing description and actions, choosing the right words – not just words that work well, but absolutely the best words for a moment. Because if your story is small, a quick read, you want it to pack a punch – to grab the reader and take them on a quick little adventure that will affect them somehow, even if it is a light-hearted piece of fluff, not a deeply-emotional tangle.

And even if you write long-forms most typically, you absolutely can work on super-short fiction effectively – I sit before you as living proof. My super-short stories were a mess at first (although, to be completely honest, I was mad and I started playing with them at the same time as my first NaNoWriMo – literally) but practise and reading over my own work has refined them, and my grasp on the medium, incredibly.

It has taught me how to convey things quickly and effectively – taking as few words as possible to introduce a scene, a character, a dilemma, an emotion. These are definitely skills that I put to use in my novel-writing and other longer forms as well!

Super-short fiction is also an excellent medium to see that progress through practise – after all, you can knock one out very quickly, and check over several in a few minutes, looking at your progress. They don’t represent nearly the time investment that many types of stories do, by their very natures.

That difference in the time you devote to a single story is also why super-short stories can be a wonderful way to try different styles, or to make changes to the way you describe emotion or write dialogue that you might not normally try. You risk little – no daunting thoughts of possibly having to go back and rewrite every instance of your little experiment in a 60,000 word piece – and you can scan over the changes with ease.

I also learned to be more ruthless in editing from super-short fiction – after all, especially if you’re working to a word limit, you have to be able to cut ruthlessly, and it is a lot easier to see exactly how it might affect your overall story when that story all fits on one page and can literally be glanced over.

Practise with super-short stories gave me a better sense of the feel of editing, and what things were affected by the changes I made – without going through the laborious process of screwing up on editing a few rough draft novels to find out. (I freely admit it – editing long-form stories is a bane for me, I work so much more easily when I only have a small space in which to neaten things.)

They are also just a lot of fun and can be a great little palate-cleanser, or a way to cheer yourself up after immersing yourself in an emotional or difficult part of a longer story. And I often scribble new ones down while I’m sitting in waiting rooms, or waiting to pick someone up – or having accidentally arrived earlier than someone I’m meeting somewhere.

Have you ever written a story under 500 words? Would you like to try it? What do you like about super-short fiction?

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