How short are your shorts?

One question that frequently comes up in the various writing groups I belong to is about the length of a story, chapter or book. For some reason, many aspiring writers assign an arbitrary word limit to these, as if as soon as they hit the “magic number” it’s time to end the chapter and start writing the next.

One thing I like to point out is that the author should work on quality, not quantity. Writers need to ignore the word limits and focus on writing their best works, rather than counting how many words they have written.

A great challenge that writers can try is to write short shorts. What does that mean? Basically, try to write a complete short story using as few words as possible.

One of the most prominent examples has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who said that he could create a short story in only six words. The story he supposedly came up with is this:

For sale: baby shoes. Never used.

— Ernest Hemingway (maybe)

I’ll admit that it can be quite difficult to come up with a short story with that much of an impact! A good number that I strive for is 500 words. I find it quite entertaining to write a short story that is brief, yet also concise and moving. When you have a strict limit on the number of words you can use, then quality really does become an emphasis. This can be a good lesson to carry forward with longer works, too. Writing concisely will make your narrative flow better, provide an abundance of details without being superfluous, and help regulate pacing, too.

So try it yourself! Impose a 500 word limit on your story, and see what you can come up with. Here’s one that I came up with a few years ago – one of my favorites that I’ve written, and it’s only 169 words.

“Dammit, I think it’s broken!” Kathy glared at Arthur as she shoved the watch in her purse. “You need to watch where you’re walking!”

“You need to keep your stuff off the floor and out of the walkway,” Arthur snapped back. The dashboard lights cast a green aura on his face. Kathy felt a surge of rage fill her.

“If I’m late, you’re going to regret it.”

Arthur glanced at her. “Did you know that Toni Meyers died recently?”

Kathy’s face flushed with anger. “Your ex-girlfriend from three years ago? Good riddance. What did she die from?”

Arthur focused on the road ahead of him. “AIDS,” he said simply.

Kathy felt the heat turn to ice. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.

The left turn signal winked in the reflection of Arthur’s glasses. “Maybe,” he said. “But the watch doesn’t seem quite as important now, does it?”

Kathy remained silent. She looked out the window of the car, the thin glass separating her from the cold darkness beyond.

— J. Todd Cumming

If you want o share what you come up with, feel free! Go ahead and post it below, or you can join my Facebook page and post it there. I’d love to see what you can come up with!

Keep on writing!

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