The shorter the better

The commission to supply a story for a magazine’s Flash Fiction month (Ziggurat, Wales Arts Review) allowed a maximum wordage of 500. I think it was too much. The most successful very short fiction combines economy with profundity and is aided by the reverberation of what’s left unsaid. More than 300 words confounds the formula by encouraging an uncharacteristic prolixity, so that the story begins to read like the entrance to a novella or something even longer, what’s left unsaid being a desideratum not a matter for invigorating speculation. I’ve written just short of 300. Hemingway got it down to six with ‘For sale: baby’s booties. Never used.’ Here, the profound (or tragic) is combined with the demotic, in that the story could be taken from an advert written on a postcard and displayed in a shop window, and the implication is that the sellers are the parents/grandparents/relatives of a baby that died without being able to wear the booties. But the interpretation depends on the reader. It could just as easily reflect a thief’s opportunism or a divorcée’s want of cash (the lesser tragedy of a domestic arrangement that didn’t work). It’s the description ‘never used’ that connotes infant mortality: if there were no heartbreaking backstory there would be no point in mentioning it, and therein lies the deeper tragedy of helplessness. That said, a thief could be manipulative or the divorcée (justifiably) vindictive. The first reading is the important one, the one that will mean most.

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