Making Every Word Count: How to Write Short

Making Every Word Count: How to Write Short

GrubStreet Instructor and Consultant Cara Benson offers us tips and tricks for writing flash fiction. 


“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”


So goes the six-word story that has been attributed to Papa Hemingway (and that attribution has also been contested). The line contains more than a few dramatic possibilities with such an incredible economy of words. This one sentence has given us a miscarriage, an adoption, or a divorce. We’re not sure, but we do know that there is pathos. What is between the words gets us thinking, the line itself becoming a trigger for the reader’s imagination. That’s quite the feat for one sentence.


Restricting a story to only six words is an extreme case of writing short, though it has become a genre in its own right, complete with contests, story generators, and prompts specific to the task. Longer than that is the “micro” story, of about a hundred words or less, and then there is the most popular of them all: the flash. Flash writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, has an upper limit of around 1500 words, but you will also see calls for 750 or less.


Whether six or six hundred, in short writing, the words need to do more, as do the spaces between them, like the maybe-Hemingway example. Of course words are important in novels, novellas, short stories, and essays, but in a flash there isn’t time to dilly-dally in lengthy exposition or backstory. There’s no room for extended reverie. Without these forays into history and setting and the musings of a character’s complex inner life, how can we still create a meaningful experience for a reader?


One way to think about flash, as the word implies, is that it happens all of a moment, like a painting: it’s a singular canvas that we take in in an instant. When viewing a painting, we might have an overall impression, a gestalt that reaches us if we don’t look too closely at any particular point on the canvas. That said, our eyes do move over the paint from center to corners and back again to fully absorb the experience. Of course, reading doesn’t work this way, as we start with the first word and move across the page or screen toward the last; but if we use a model of impressionism as inspiration for our writing, we can make something that plays on the reader similarly.


For example, let’s consider some elements for an image from which we will create a flash. Picture a kitchen, two men, one table, and three chairs. Already we might have an inkling of a narrative here. How will we arrange these players? Are they waiting for someone? Is there a glass knocked over? One bite taken from an apple? Creating a fertile moment that gives the impression that something has happened, will happen, or is happening can be a starting point from which we can build a story.


Another approach is to consider the page a container into which we will be pouring our characters, ideas, actions, and images. This foregrounds form in way that writing prose with fewer limits might not. If I’m writing an essay, a short story, or a novel, I might work with conventional formal elements such as narrative structure and timeline to shape my project. With flash, I often invoke an unconventional form to give shape to a piece.


For example: listing. I love lists! Flash lends itself to lists and series brilliantly. A beloved exercise many creative writing instructors use is inspired by a famous work by artist and writer Joe Brainard, I Remember. This takes the form of a list of his memories, each one beginning with the phrase “I remember.” The prompt is to generate your own list of “I remembers” without filling in too much information on each individual memory. It’s amazing how quickly a storyline or portrait appears.


A version of the memory list exercise is to generate a catalogue of exes, giving each one three lines of description. This one is always good for some juicy results. While writing, you might hit on one memory or ex that calls for more than a few sentences. That’s fine! Pull that one out and go longer. You just might have a 1500 word story emerging. Often, though, the lists themselves are such interesting collections that with a little work, they become publishable pieces in their own right.


One of my favorite exercises in going short is to take a story or piece of creative nonfiction you’ve been working on and perform an erasure on it. You can do this systematically by taking out every third sentence (or fifth, seventh) or you can scroll through and take out what moves you on intuition. Of course, what’s left behind might make less sense than originally intended, but you won’t leave it there. You might see that further cutting will reduce the writing down to an essence and from there you can add a few words or sentences here or there to give you something you never expected.


These are just a handful of approaches to writing short works, but I think they are great ways to start. I’d give you more, but then I’d be over my word count.



Need guidance on a longer project? You can work with Cara through Grub’s Consulting program!

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