Short Fiction – What exactly is that?

Happy new year!

Some of you may have resolved to read more, but you don’t have to go straight for War and Peace (I haven’t read it either). In this post, I want to explain some often confused terms. What follows should demystify the world of short fiction and give you a few ideas of where to start.

What about one per month? Could you read twelve short works this year?

(from short to long)

Micro Fiction – a term used to describe the written works that are extremely short in word count, usually under 250. You might think ‘what’s the point in something so short?’ Consider this:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn
(Attributed to Ernest Hemingway)

It’s a story. In just six words, we get life, love, and loss, packaged as a classified advert.

One particular form of micro is the drabble – a story of exactly 100 words. Something slightly shorter is the 81 Words Anthology (published by Victorina Press) which features over 1,000 authors (including me).

What’s great about micro fiction? There is so much authors can’t include, but it is surprisingly versatile. You’ll marvel at how stories are formed from weird ideas, lines of conversation, or newspaper adverts.

Where to start: 100 Word StoryElectric Literature81 Words Anthology

Flash Fiction (sometimes known as sudden fiction) – narrative prose which is very quick to read. There are no exact word limits, but I’d generally say that under 1,000 words is Flash.

What makes flash fiction sing is that it still offers character and plot development. Stories are often about a change within a narrator or character, with the dramatic or traumatic events implied.

What’s great about flash fiction? Reading flash fiction is expansive. You have to use clues in the text to visit the character’s past or future. You write the story as much as the author. It’s breathless. It’s exhilarating and often heartbreaking.

One particular form of flash fiction worth noting is the novella-in-flash. Imagine a tiny novel made up of connected flash fictions. The jumps and time gaps will ensure you think about these lovely little books long after you’ve finished reading.

Where to start: Stellar, free-to-read magazines include SmokeLong Quaterly and Flash Fiction OnlineAd Hoc Fiction is a renowned publisher of many novellas-in-flash

Short Story – a story that can be read in one sitting (usually between 1,500 and 8,000 words). Where to start? It’s not a compressed novel. A hero rarely saves the day. They don’t have happy endings (some don’t even have endings). But, the short stories is, in my opinion, the most diverse, deep and meaningful form of literature we have.

This form was greatly popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. When magazines and periodicals ruled the literary charts, before the times of video and bookshops, people read short stories. Think of Poe and Twain and Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes featured in 56 short stories and only four novels.

What’s great about short stories? Yes, you will have questions. Yes, your brain will get a thorough workout, but you will experience stories which do not exist in any other medium. Perhaps my favourite explanation comes from V.S. Pritchett who said short stories are ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing’. Isn’t that something we should all do more? Notice things in passing. The fact is that if we read short stories, we begin to the beautiful, the quiet, the strange. We become aware. We care for others.

Short stories are often arranged into collections (single author) or anthologies (multiple writers). If you come across a story you love, the author probably has a collection. If you want to sample some variety, go for a best-of or themed anthology.

Where to start: That Glimpse of Truth (Mega Anthology), Sunday Times Short Story Award (read previous winners), The New Yorker


One story a month. Who will join me?

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