Most writers understand their own writing process and at a certain point become comfortable “owning” it. That is to say, they become comfortable with their own neurotic way of getting the words swirling around in their head down onto paper. Some people love to talk about new projects, some would rather gnaw off their own toenails than talk about a rough draft. Some writers never start a story without a title, others have to depend on the generosity of their writer friends to title their work for them. But one sign that you are comfortable with your writerly quirks and tics is that you no longer feel panicky when you hear about someone’s else’s method. Just because you need to write in the privacy of your study while listening to Grace Potter does not make you any better or worse off than your friends who happily write in coffee shops, in bars, or while sitting under trees. It’s a good feeling when you release the idea that there is a “right” way to write a story while also releasing the fear that your method is somehow wrong.
For example, when I first started writing short stories, I thought I needed to have at least twenty pages for it to be considered a “real” short story. I don’t exactly know where I came up with this idea but I was reading a lot of Alice Munro at the time and her stories are fairly long. Her story “Too Much Happiness” from her collection of the same title is 57 pages. I love reading long short stories. But I’ve also realized that the stories I have to tell generally can be told in under twenty pages. In fact, the longest story in my collection right now is twenty pages, the shortest is only three. If I have a story over twenty pages, it’s usually because I’ve lost control of the story and am veering into rambling/floundering territory.
With flash fiction on the rise and a number of online only magazines actively seeking shorter stories, here are a few benefits to keeping it short and sweet.
- It’s easier to experiment with point of view or structure. For example, the second person is a fun point of view to play around with in a story. But it’s also an exhausting POV for the reader because the reader is pulled into the story and is often being directly addressed throughout the story. Most effective second person stories are well under twenty pages.
- It forces you to be more careful about word choice. In a five page story, you have fewer opportunities to draw in the reader and to create tension than you do in a longer story. Therefore, as the writer you need to be able to justify every word, every comma, every period. Of course, ideally this same justification should take place in a longer piece too, but it’s slightly less urgent. It’s easier to spot extraneous words or scenes in a shorter story vs. a longer one.
- Short stories often, but not always, examine life’s small moments. It’s hard to tackle the evolution of a marriage in a ten page story. But one defining moment in a marriage is easily examined and explored in the same space.
- And finally, it’s easier to read aloud and edit a five page story than it is a fifty pager.
Plenty of authors, both contemporary and not, have written stories on the brief side. Here are just a few I found on my bookshelf:
“Chablis” by Donald Barthelme (3 pages)
“Popular Mechanics” by Raymond Carver (3 pages)
“A Respectable Woman” by Kate Chopin (4 pages)
“How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” by Junot Díaz (6 pages)
“To Those of You Who Missed Your Flights Out of O’Hare” by Amy Hempel (3 pages)
“Steady Hands at Seattle General” by Denis Johnson (5 pages)
“The Moves” by Miranda July (2 pages)
“Give” by James Salter (9 pages)
“The French Girls” by Anthony Varallo (3 pages)
“Powder” by Tobias Wolff (5 pages)