Choosing the Shortest Story Forms

October 13, 2016
story art

Former guest editor Leland Cheuk writes for the blog this week about using epistolary forms and bullet points in flash fiction.

By Leland Cheuk

Until recent years, I wrote only novels, thinking of them as the ultimate literary art form—the home run. I didn’t feel at all comfortable with the short form. How could I possibly fit my grand and unforgettable themes, my many profundities in a few thousand words? Invariably, I’d start each short story with a novelesque first scene that was four or five pages long—well beyond the typical word count of flash fiction. In the last few years, thanks to so many literary journals moving online, the conventional short story form has become even shorter. I found myself with 6,000-word stories with few places to send them, so I started writing more flash in the hopes of publishing more often. At first, it was difficult squeezing full scenes into a line or two. But with practice and a little trickery, I began to churn out 1,000-2,000-word pieces that felt whole. Several of these flash stories made it into my recently released collection Letters from Dinosaurs. To keep my word counts down, I chose story forms that had inherent word-count limits.

For example, in “A Letter From Your Dinosaur,” I used the epistolary form. An estranged father taunts his “futurist,” tech mogul son by writing an old-fashioned paper letter. Who sits down and writes a letter by hand anymore? When I write a thank-you card, my eyes water, my hand cramps, and inevitably, my message shortens to a few sentences. The average email length ranges between 250-500 words. Written letters have drifted toward that size. In “A Letter From Your Dinosaur,” the story ended up being just 1,400 words. By simply starting the story with the word “Dear,” you can put your story in a container that has its own word limits.

In “League of Losers,” I took the epistolary form and extended it to the email. The story is a thread from a fantasy baseball league email list that goes horribly awry when a member reveals the non-baseball-related fact that he’s mourning the sudden death of his brother. Emails may average 250 words, but many times they are far shorter. In just 50-100 words, you can fit numerous back-and-forths and have a story that operates like dialogue. The longest email in “League of Losers” is 380 words. The shortest is just four words (“Omg I’m an idiot”). Every letter in an email says something about a person. One might include a famous quotation as part of his or her email signature. One might not use a signature at all. One might name his or her email address after one’s pet. One might write unusually long emails, indicating a lack of awareness or interest in the attention span of his or her audience. One might use ALL CAPS often, demonstrating that his or her personality is outsized. I used those nuances to create distinct characters using as little space as possible. “League of Losers” is just 1,700 words long and contains seven speaking characters.

One of the banes of my existence as a corporate marketing professional was the bullet point. The entire purpose of bullet points in business documents is to shorten messages to a few salient words. In fact, it’s designed to encourage the omission of the sentence’s subject, making one’s thought all verb and object—in short, all action. In my 3,000-word story “The Bullet Points of Valley Pete,” I wrote an entire story using bullet points. Instead of using quotations and dialogue tags, I simply indented the bullet point. Instead of using paragraphs, I bullet-pointed key slices of information. In this passage from the story, I mix complete sentences and fragments that you would commonly see in a business presentation:

    • Maeve is twenty-eight.
    • Used to work as a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company.
    • Currently single. Her boyfriend recently left her after five years.
    • Favorite musician is David Byrne. Pete tells her that, as an undergraduate, he saw Byrne and the Talking Heads play for three hours at Madison Square Garden in the late-80’s. He went to no such concert and has no idea whether such a show existed. In fact, he can’t name a Talking Heads song.

None of these tools are new, of course. Epistolary stories are as old as literature. We email, text, and tweet daily. Recently, there was a #TwitterFiction Festival, in which Margaret Atwood and Celeste Ng participated. Great short stories told one tweet at a time are going viral via Storify. Teju Cole wrote the story “Hafiz” in 30 retweets. Jennifer Egan used entire PowerPoint slides in her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. Paying attention to the way our communications have evolved can be a great way of giving your fiction its flash.

unnamed-2Leland Cheuk is the author of the novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (CCLaP Publishing, 2015) and the story collection LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS (Thought Catalog Books, 2016). He is a MacDowell Colony fellow, and his work has appeared in publications such as Salon, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and others. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and lives in Brooklyn.