Over the last few years the definition of flash fiction within much of the horror genre seems to have changed from a 1000 words or less to a 100 words or less. In an age of interactive social media and shrinking attention spans, short fiction that’s freely available online is a great way for writers to get exposure, but how much shorter can fiction become and still retain the elements that comprise a story?
When I first heard about The Campaign For Real Fear, the 500-word limit looked daunting. I’d never tried my hand at anything that short before, but Christopher Fowler and Maura McHugh who were running the Campaign, said that if writers couldn’t scare them in 500 words they wouldn’t be able to do it in 5,000.
So I surprised myself when I did indeed manage to write a story under 500 words that was more than just the seed of an idea. My surprise only increased when it won a place in the competition, and a few months later I wrote a 250-word story. Then a story using just 100 words.
Surely a hundred words was as short as a story could be and still have some kind of plot with a resolution, etc. A quick internet search however, revealed numerous short story blogs and contests with a limit of just fifty-five words. I read a few of these ultra shorts. Some of them were pointless, little more than thoughts. But others were good, and they told a story. In just 55 words.
Surely this was the limit.
But a few days ago the excellent Tim Waggoner posted a challenge to his followers on Facebook and Google + to write a horror story using only ten words. Had Waggoner not posted his own example called FANGS, I might have remained unconvinced it could be done. Yet I surprised myself again by writing a ten-word story of my own. Whether or not it’s any good is another matter, but the exercise got me thinking: how much lower could the word limit go?
Eighteen months ago I’d barely written anything under two thousand words. Now I’m writing stories using a couple of hundred. The shortest story I’ve written so far is eighty words. Tim Waggoner got it down to ten. Hemingway reportedly wrote this six-word gem:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
But this is Hemingway, master of brevity. Surely it couldn’t get any lower than six.
Another internet search revealed multiple websites that list numerous five words stories allegedly penned by a stack of famous writers.
But if five is doable, how about four?
Is three possible?
Surely two is the absolute limit, because no one, not even Hemingway, could possibly write a one-word story. But then I remembered that someone already had.
When I was a kid, I owned a Giant Book Of Facts, and one of these facts concerned a writing competition where the winning entry was a book entitled Who Rules The World?
Printed on an otherwise blank page was a single word:
Apparently it was a bestseller.