Big Story, Small Word Count

Wendy Hornsby

How many words does it take to tell a story?  A book usually runs somewhere north of eighty thousand words, though there is no magic length.  With that abundance of keystrokes available, the author has plenty of time to develop a fulsome plot and a cast of beguiling characters who carry the story to, one hopes, a satisfying conclusion.  But writers of short stories, which generally top out under twenty thousand words, don’t share the luxury of time and space to accomplish all of the above, and in the case of a crime story, deliver suspense as well.  

Publisher, author, book purveyor Otto Penzler, sent out a challenge to a diverse group of well-published authors:  Write a mystery short story that does everything necessary to be a fully told crime-related tale, and do it in under a thousand words.  Character, plot, suspense, pizzazz in less than four printed pages.  He offered as an example six words that managed to deliver an evocative tale:  “Wedding dress for sale, never worn.” 

Any story told in short form can be more difficult to produce than the long form.  But a fully realized crime tale in only a thousand words is, indeed, a challenge.   Otto has assembled eighty-one examples of super shorts in an anthology called Kwik Krimes, released this month by publisher Thomas Mercer as both a trade paperback and in electronic formats.  It’s impressive how much the authors managed to deliver with so few words.  And it is fascinating how much variety there is in form, style, tone and substance among these little tales.   The stories range from sweetly humorous to bleakest noir.  


 “After,” by Long Beach author and professor of creative writing Tyler Dilts, is a fine example of classic noir.  His offering is a grisly story told from the rarely-used second person point of view, in present tense, with an unconventional structure.  The language is spare, there are few details, but the story is rich in imagery, plot and characters.  It takes talent to pull all that off, no matter the length of the work.

In contrast to Tyler’s idiosyncratic style, my friend Gar Anthony Haywood’s story, “The Einstein Divorce,” told in third-person, has a traditional novelistic, linear structure.  What makes this story so much fun to read is the very strong authorly voice, well-drawn characters, and a triple twist plot, which took a particular sleight-of hand to accomplish in the number of words allowed. 

 I asked Gar about writing super short short stories, sometimes called “flash fiction.”  He said, “More than anything else, your set-up has to be IMMEDIATE.  You have to establish what your story’s about in a few pages and then sprint toward the finish.  There’s almost no ‘middle’ to be had.  It is set-up, take a breath, then sign off with a bang.  Very tricky stuff.”

 Tricky indeed.  But fun.  My contribution to the anthology, “Full Bloom,” is an 880 word tale about a woman who loves her garden.  And whose husband has gone missing.  While writing the story, I kept thinking about the old joke about the guy who, admiring Michelangelo’s sculpture of a horse, asks the sculptor about his process.  Michelangelo’s apocryphal response:  “I just take a block of marble and cut away everything that doesn’t look like a horse.”  Easier said than done.


2 Responses

  1. I didn’t know about Penzler’s challenge, but at some writers workshop I attended many years ago, I tried such a short-short. Did it for the exercise, but in fact it’s one of the few short stories I’ve ended up selling. Who knew? I love the wedding dress micro story!

  2. Sold. Just bought the eBook. Will read “Full Bloom” now and put the rest in the ever-growing queue.

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