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Flash Fiction/Micro Fiction/Short Shorts

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
April 2009

"All of these short pieces are not just VIGNETTES."

Fast fiction, micro fiction and shorts are like roses by other names. They fit with our modern age of short attention spans for both readers and writers. What they all have in common are:

SIZE MATTERS: Microfiction is usually less than 400 words with some exceptions that are as much as 750 words. Flash Fiction is usually about a 1,000 and a short short is about 1001-2500 words. Some anthologies have exact word counts. For example, they want a story of only 65 words. Camille Renshaw gave this analogy in The Essentials of Microfiction gave this analogy “If the novel writer is a carpenter who structures a whole house, and a short story writer is a decorator of one of its rooms, then the microfiction writer is the mailman who looks in the box before dropping in the household letters.” All of these pieces are prose. All of these short pieces are not just VIGNETTES. That is, they aren’t just a scene or a description of the surroundings. As brief as they are, they have classical story structure. a character, obstacles or conflict, a resolution. This principle, taken to an extreme, is shown in Hemmingways’ six-world flash. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  Fresh, heart-stirring, quirky, attention grabbing prose: 

"So the avenues we walk down,
full of bodies wearing faces,
are full of hidden talent:"


Here’s an example from Birth by Robert Earle: “Somehow their marriage got caught in the car engine and blew up.” Parrot Talk by Kit Coyne Irwin begins, “There’s not much to tell, the squawks made me look up, and in the trees there are these gigantic nests, the size of sofas.

Images: Metaphors and similes that help the reader quickly get a picture of what you mean. This is the first line from Quill by Thomas Earley. “As Thomson stared at Quill, the oxygen tube protruding from Quill’s nostrils, curving up and back and over his head, took on the appearance of tusks. Edit, edit, edit and re-edit. Your strike-outs should be abundant. You have to whittle your words and if you do, the effects will be startling even to you. For example:

Tonight in the restaurant, tthe water wouldn’t stop talking to us. He seemed to need our attention the way we needed food in our bellies. I bet everyone could hear Mmy stomach growled, and still he the waiter told us how his older brother got him this job and went on, ta-ya-dah, ya dah.


Reasoning: Waiter implies restaurant so it wasn’t needed. “seemed to” wasn’t necessary. If my stomach growled, it was obvious that I needed food in my belly.

What the waiter was saying wasn’t interesting and didn’t add to what the story was going to be.

The rewrite would be:

The waiter wouldn’t stop talking to us. My stomach growled and still he went on, ta-ya-dah, ya dah.

"The reader should start out thinking that one thing is going to happen and voila."







Surprise: The reader should start out thinking that one thing is going to happen and voila—something totally unexpected happens. For example, in the astonishing flash fiction story, Sleeping, by Katherine Weber, (Flash Fiction Forward ed. by James Thomas) an inexperienced babysitter is told by the Mrs. that she shouldn’t go in to check on the baby because if she turned the doorknob, the baby might wake up. The sitter became curious and tried. The door to the baby’s room was locked. At the end, when the Mr. of the couple drops the baby sitter off, he says something quite oblique. “My wife,” he hesitated. “You understand, don’t you?” And the reader begins to see that this is a Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf type story where there might not even have been a baby, either they had had a baby who had died or the couple couldn’t have one and the wife needed to pretend they did in order to hold onto her sanity. Chilling!!!

Here’s another example of leading the reader in one direction and then having the text lead the reader in another cited by Camille Renshaw:

The World’s Shortest Horror Story: The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.

Implication: There isn’t room for long character histories (backstories) in a short piece. You have to give just enough detail to add resonance.

"Use a directive last sentence that gives the insight or opinion."

Renshaw says that these are the ways you know you’ve created a story:

Use a directive last sentence that gives the insight or opinion. In The Imitator, Thomas Bernhard ends with this directive sentence: “In this way, Fourati, as is well-known, had ruined not only the lady’s life, but his own as well.” Make the reader want to reread the story. Here’s my example: I have two sisters, both older than I. (Then I could go on to tell you all about the terrible things they did to me) and end with, “I only speak to the one who was kindest to me.” You have to go back, at least in your mind, to try to figure out which one that might be. Close with a phrase that sends the reader back into the story. For example, Nicaragua by Kirk Nesset ends with “They’re men now, not boys, each armed with a knife. In truth you saw only one blade. The girl didn’t see any.” You start wondering about the girl, why she didn’t see it. You wonder would you have seen it? It makes you go back, rethink or reread. And it’s a breeze to do it in a two page story. Remember that a story has a point and you have to know when you make it and so does the reader. Be sure to read Mother, by Grace Paley.  http://readashort.blogspot.com/2008/06/mother-by-grace-paley.html

You will see how she ends with a simple, declarative sentence (I don’t want to be a spoiler) which makes the reader think of his own mother.

The beauty of reading and writing short shorts is that you can analyze them like you can a poem, line-by-line, without the exhaustion of a long work. That helps you gain insight. You (and I) might even get a better handle on the meaning of most New Yorker short stories that often seem to end so abruptly. Also, you might find that your short-shorts can be put together into a longer work such as Mark Budman’s novel-in-flashes, My Life at First Try (Counterpoint, 2008). 

A Few markets that take flash fiction are Vestal Review, Smoke Long Quarterly, Everyday Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Quick Fiction.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro








Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.