“Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.” Truman Capote
Today is the first ever National Flash Fiction Day. Most of us have never heard of Flash Fiction and that’s presumably why the movement is holding its first ever national day. First coined back in 1992 as the title to an anthology of very short stories, the name Flash Fiction has since stuck to a movement that specialises in very, very short stories.
The master of the pared down story, Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story in just six words, ’For sale: baby shoes, never worn’. It’s a wonderful lesson in just how short a story can be, and with the age of 140 character Tweets squarely upon us, now surely is the ideal time to embrace the idea that length in literature surely isn’t everything?
From Chekov to Cheever, there are so many excellent short stories published in various lengths and the Flash Fiction movement doesn’t seem to specify an exact word limit but instead seems more a celebration of the shorter end of fictional writing. From six words to 1,000 they don’t seem too fussed, it’s the idea of telling a story in as few words as possible that appeals.
So to do our bit in the cause of celebrating the medium of short fiction we’d like you to submit your own short stories in the comments section below. We’re not looking for any half million War & Peace style behemoths, but more like Hemmingway’s six word masterpiece.
You can take a look at the Flash Fiction Facebook page here and please let us know if you are holding any Flash Fiction events tomorrow.
To celebrate National Flash Fiction Day here are some of our favourite short stories below.
The Swimmer by John Cheever – A wonderful short story of off-kilter realism set in suburban America that plays on the Greek myth of Narcissus. Cheever writes about a young man who sets off one boozy Sunday afternoon on a mission to swim home via all the swimming pools on route. There is a luminous sadness that remains long after the story has ended and the Autumn leaves are gathering on the pool: “In the space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his return impossible.”
The Lady With The Little Dog by Anton Chekov – Possibly the master of the form, Chekov couldn’t write a bad short story if he tried and this is no exception. A Russian banker meets a young lady he while on holiday in Yalta and their relationship grows into an affair. Separated after their trip they pine for each other before eventually meeting again in Moscow. The story ends with the realisation that they are in love but the story is ultimately unresolved as to how their love will survive reality: ”It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.”
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – A startling piece of early feminist fiction this short story revolves around a woman confined to her bedroom due to her nervous depression and eventual psychosis. The room is decorated with the yellow wallpaper of the title and the narrator slowly descends further and further into madness while confined in the room. The novella has been interpreted as a critique of mental health treatment, a feminist work, and even a ghost story: “It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! … The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.”
Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly by David Eggers - A woman climbs Kilimanjaro to improve her self-confidence after an unexplained personal crisis, as the weather on the mountain turns ugly the story of how her children were taken away from her slowly comes through the narrative. Eggers’ prose is technically superb and his ear for dialogue is at times incredible. A piece of sad beauty this story alone shows there is more to Eggers than stylistic game playing: “Morning comes like a scream through a pinhole.”
The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James – Perhaps the scariest short story ever, this gothic masterpiece by the American master is a classic. When a young nanny arrives at a country pile to look after two young children, all seems well. But as with any great ghost story things gradually turn increasingly sinister as the evil seems to surround the nanny and two children. The story is open to various interpretations, but the one thing that is without dispute is the growing sense of unease and dread as James slowly turns the screw: “No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear.”
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway – One of the masters of the form, Hemingway excels in this very short story of absolute simplicity. Two characters, one man, one woman, are on a platform in Spain, waiting for a train to Madrid. The story is basically made up of their conversation in which they seem to be discussing an abortion without ever using the word ‘abortion’. It’s a masterclass in not revealing too much about the characters but instead letting the reader use their imagination. Not a lot happens but it works its way into your subconsciousness over the few pages it lasts: “Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes like licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges – A multi-layered story, this short work is an excellent way to get acquainted with the Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet. The story involves spies, a novel that is also an infinite labyrinth, the forking of time, and a meditation on the reality that every action we take slightly alters the course of everything. Described as an elaborate hypertext, Borges was so far ahead of his time that we haven’t even got close to catching up with him yet: “This web of time — the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries — embrace every possibility.”
A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver – An eight-year-old boy dies three days after being hit by a car as he walks to school. In beautifully clean and minimalist language utterly free of pretence Carver shows the grief of the parents and their argument over a misunderstanding with a baker who was baking a birthday cake for the boy. As Carver himself said, the story revolves around ‘dialogue between people who aren’t listening to each other’, and like the very best short stories, it contains multitudes and is deeply affecting while seemingly dealing with the barest of surface details. Short stories don’t come much better than this: “Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years.”