I want to address the question of how short a story can be and still be a story, but to get there we have to consider an obvious question: What is a story?
Consider the poor writer whose manuscript was just rejected. The editor has been kind enough to provide some specific comment in the form of three scribbled words on the form rejection. “Not a story.” What in the world does that mean?
A conscientious writer might endeavor to find out. Let’s say she goes to the library and brings home a stack of books about writing, from popular how-to-write titles to volumes of literary theory. She reads in E.M. Forster’s observation that any sequence of narrative events can be a story. To illustrate the difference between story and plot, Forster says that “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story and “The king dies, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. Well, that’s not help to our writer. Her manuscript portrayed stuff happening. She knocked off any number of kings and queens, in fact, but the editor had still pronounced the effort “Not a story.”
She keeps reading and finds out that a story is character plus change, or is good people behaving badly, or is two dogs and one bone. Maybe she encounters the theory first described by Scott Meredith and later taught by Algis Budrys, going something like this: A character in a context has a problem that she tries three time to solve, failing each time, at which point the character either has an insight, changes her approach, and succeeds or refuses the insight, tries the same thing she has tried before, and is destroyed.
Not a few writers have discovered this Meredith/Budrys formulation or one like it and gone on to use it to tell successful stories. Indeed, some amateur editors and reviewers have found this structure to be so common in published stories that they have come to think of it as a prescription, insisting on having protagonists try exactly three times. A story that doesn’t fit this model is, in their view, “not a story.”
But the professional editor who wrote “Not a story” on the rejection form did not, believe me, have any particular formula or model for story writing in mind. Any editor in the business for long would know that Forster’s definition and the Meredith/Budrys definition of story are both correct… and both utterly inadequate. What makes a story can’t be summed up, for all stories, for all time, because whether a collection of words comes down to one question in the mind of one reader at a time: “Did this satisfy me?”
Forster’s definition can describe a narrative in which one thing follows another, sure enough, but the reader doesn’t care. Any definition that proposes particular fictive elements arranged in a particular structure excludes texts that, while omitting some of the “necessary” bits, still leave readers feeling happy and sated.
A story is a story when a reader says so.
Subjective definitions drive some people crazy, of course, especially when they, like our hypothetical writer, hope to use the definition as a set of instructions. But they can also be the most honest and inclusive of definitions. Damon Knight once said, amid disputes about what was “real” science fiction, that science fiction was whatever literature he was pointing at when he said, “That’s science fiction.” That is, he was claiming to know it when he saw it.
The same is true of story. Some texts leave most readers feeling that they have read a story. Some texts satisfy only a few readers, or none. But the judgment is made one text, one reader at a time.
“Not a story,” scrawls the editor, meaning, “In my experienced judgment, this text does not deliver the experience that I know my readers refer to with the word story.” In the case of popular fiction, the lack of satisfying story might be successfully addressed by shaping the material to conform to the model typical of such fiction. The editor might well hope that the writer reads an article by Algis Budrys and rewrites accordingly.
But experienced editors know that the test of the pudding is in the eating. A story can satisfy the reader’s craving for story in any number of ways, some of which haven’t been invented or attempted yet. An editor can hear a story described and think that it doesn’t sound like a story, but that never means that it couldn’t possibly be a story. Told the right way, it could be. The only test is to give it to a reader and ask if, while reading it and afterward, the reader thought it was a story.
This subjectivity means that the question of how short a story can be also has a subjective answer. It depends on the reader. Some of us can read very few words and, if they are the right dozen words, feel the satisfaction of having read a story. Hemingway proposed that “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn,” was a short story. Is it? For some readers, it is.
The editor who writes on a manuscript “Not a story” or “This isn’t long enough to really be a story” is offering either a private reaction or is anticipating the reaction of his readers. The writer might say, “But Hemingway wrote a story in six words!” to which the editor could reply, “No, he didn’t!” They’d both be right.
Mostly by accident, I discovered that for some readers telling several very short stories in a row makes all of them stories when the same texts, one at a time, would be something less than stories. I always give my shortshortshort subscribers at least 200 words, which has forced me to present my shortest narratives in groups, as in the example, “One-Sentence Stories.” Perhaps putting one very short story after another lets the reader get used to the idea, sentence by sentence, that maybe these little bursts really are stories. Maybe I just wear the reader down by saying, in effect: This is a story. And this. And this.
The closest you can come to a definitive answer of “How short can a story be?” is to ask yourself how many words were in the shortest story you ever read. Six? Ten? One hundred and thirty-two? The fewest words that ever satisfied you defines the limit of minimalism in your own work.
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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