Reducing Language, Growing Story: Flash Fiction and Word Counts

Though often left out of workshop conversations, those ubiquitous constraints known as word counts have been influencing fiction writers far more than they let on, particularly when it comes to submitting to the dwindling number of print journals and the growing number of online journals asking for “web-friendly” stories. How many painstakingly crafted stories hitting 8000 words get trimmed to 7500 to make a respectable journal’s firm limit? How many excellent stories short of 2000 words get rejected by editors insisting upon 3000? Perhaps more than we realize. Given the discernible shift from print to web, and the balance which writers today must keep between the two, word counts may be the first and last thing to doom our students’ chances for getting those first stories taken quickly.

College students today are mostly happier when they’re writing less, yet workshoppers in this arena can get so hung up on conventions of narrative—especially fully developed plots—that they forget good stories require successful language to tag along. Good stories—or, at least, good flashes—happen at the sentence level first. This isn’t to say sentence construction alone should dictate prose but that there should be emphasis on clauses and fragments, rhythm and cadence, that each phrase shows purpose. Students may also forget that stories, long or short, will usually (though not always) boil down to a single moment or event resonating in some way for readers. This is the point of intersection between flash and traditional-length fiction. Why not explore the crossroads? Have students look closely at how such moments work in narrative?

Studying and applying word counts is an appropriate place to begin answering these questions. When teaching flash, however, we may fall into the seductive trap of the word count’s challenge. It’s never as easy as telling novice workshoppers, “I want you to write a story no more than a thousand words.” If lucky, you’ll wind up with synopses. The problem with writing whole drafts towards a predetermined limit is it tends to create interruptions, thus interfering with the natural development of ideas in which many fiction writers perhaps put great stock. With a particular number in mind, the editor’s voice in the writer’s head will soon chime in with, “You’re writing way too much—knock it off already.” When this awareness of reaching whatever hard count arrives, we start curtailing ideas, later finding our story too far upstream to return from whatever crucial moment being built towards. An often-used exercise to counter this has students working backwards from a long story and cutting down their stories incrementally draft-to-draft. But there are better opportunities to show flash’s process beyond the mere constraint of narrative shortness.

Flash fiction is not only about limited words, but limited space as well. The margins of paper, real or virtual, dictate these stories more than arbitrary word counts. Writing on a single sheet of college-ruled paper, for example, creates a perception that the page’s end is approaching. Then a crucial decision: does one finish by that last line, or continue to the next page? If writers want to start and conclude a story on a single page, regardless of their handwriting size, they can do so without counting words. With writing stories by hand comes an awareness of how much space remains ahead, and so students can potentially adjust their story mid-stream. In this sense, a single page suggests an internalized word count, which indicates the threshold of where the story’s interest snaps into place. Many students already understand this. They usually know a single page of MLA formatted writing in Times Roman 12-point font is about 350 words and sometimes dictate their homework accordingly when drafting: they tend to finish when the page makes them feel like the required length is reached. The same principle for drafting flash follows.

The minds of students already know what stories need and want; often it’s a matter of getting them into a habit of relying upon that intuition to reduce language. Memory, then, can be an effective editing tool for using words counts. Following Ezra Pound’s advice in 1922 to Hemingway after having all his manuscripts stolen, ask students to re-write whatever story drafts they’re working, but do it completely from the top of their heads. They will try that intuitive memory to select and write what was most important, clarify what wasn’t clear before, and allow superfluous details and language to fall away. Hemingway did this, finished In Our Time, and conceived his Iceberg Technique. Students can follow this method and arrive at Hemingway’s conclusion: memory selects and retains essentials of a story by using this internal count, strengthens imagery, and allows shorter, leaner drafts. From there, a workshop can proceed with revision should the prose become too comparable to Hemingway’s: incorporate poetic techniques, aphorism, fragments to start or end paragraphs, etc. And if instructors should face protests from students about this incarnation of Kill Your Darlings, they may ask them, “If you, the author, couldn’t remember the details and language of your own short story, do you think your readers will after they’re done with it?”

A common and sometimes not unreasonable complaint about flash is that its briefness prevents readers from ever seeing or knowing the characters, fails to let stories build up in satisfying ways that good traditional narratives do, and never establishes place for readers to situate their imagination. Word counts seem to make these problems worse, but only when we underestimate readers. If word counts allow taking exposition for granted, there may be value in relying upon familiarity with character types or mentalities, with shared personal backgrounds and universal experiences, events or situations that good stories won’t belabor, knowing that readers don’t need these explained for thousands of words. The story pursues, instead, that moment crucial to all stories; by suspending this moment for readers to engage with their attention intact, the story then lets itself grow beyond a truncated word limit in ways that not even its author had likely considered.


Forrest Roth's flash fiction has appeared in NOON, Denver Quarterly, Caketrain, Sleepingfish, Quick Fiction, Juked and other journals. He is also the author of a novella, Line and Pause (BlazeVOX), and a prose poem chapbook, The Sullen Pages (Little Red Leaves). He teaches at Marshall University in West Virginia.