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The Shortest Flashes Ever Written, or . . . How Short is Short-Short?

October 26th, 2013

813uyFzbgpL._SL1500_In an earlier post, I shared my thoughts on “Bedtime Story” by Jeffrey Whitmore – a short-short story that weighs in at a flyweight 55 words. Since then, I have given flash fiction presentations at PAISTA and in my advanced writing class at Sewickley Academy – both of which have given me the opportunity to field a variety of questions about short-short fiction.

One question that often comes up at such presentations is: How short is too short?

The question, of course, depends on one’s definition of flash fiction. If one accepts the premise that a short-short story should include basic narrative elements (character, setting, conflict, and resolution), then Whitmore’s 55 word tale is probably going to represent the bare minimum.

Nevertheless, for those willing to stretch the definition of story, here are five ultra-short works that might qualify as the shortest tales of all time:

100-jolts-shockingly-short-stories-michael-a-arnzen-paperback-cover-art“Gasp” by Michael A. Arnzen (26 words)

He posited that a person could drown in air. I told him to stop being contradictory. He raised a finger. Inhaled to reply. And never stopped.

The story first appeared in FlashShot, November 2002, and has been reprinted in Arnzen’s collection 100 Jolts (Raw Dog Screaming Press). As with much of Arnzen’s work, it’s darkly ironic and ultra-short. It might not qualify as a story under my definition, but it’s pretty cool nevertheless, and the book is highly recommended.

122557“Knock” by Frederic Brown (17 words)

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door. . .

This is actually a story within a story, a two-sentence vignette that Brown uses to introduce a conventional narrative that continues for another 4,000 words. The lines seem to be a reworking of an earlier short-short by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, which reads:  Imagine all human beings swept off the face of the earth, excepting one man. Imagine this man in some vast city, New York or London. Imagine him on the third or fourth day of his solitude sitting in a house and hearing a ring at the door-bell! Interestingly, Brown’s story “Imagine” (another contender for one of the shortest stories of all time) also seems to draw inspiration from Aldrich.

6words_Hemingway-400x266“Baby Shoes” by Ernest Hemingway
(6 words)

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Again, whether it really qualifies as a story depends on how far you are willing to stretch the definition. Nevertheless, those six words certainly pack a punch. Interestingly, the general consensus is that the vignette probably was not penned by Hemingway. There’s a nice discussion of the story’s authorship at

a747810ae7a0464f45309110.L“Cosmic Report Card: Earth” by Forrest J. Ackerman
(1 letter)


Ackerman sold the story to the SF magazine Vertex for $100.00.  It appeared in the June 1973 issue and has since been translated into a half-dozen languages.

Quite a stunt.

Of course, it’s the title that makes it.

Ultimate FlashWhat Every Man Thinks About Apart from Sex by Sheridan Simove (0 words)

This one really stretches the definition. It’s a book consisting of 196 blank pages, and I’m sure there are people who would not consider it fiction.

Take a look. Judge for yourself.

Coming soon, I hope to conclude this month’s discussion of flash fiction by responding to some questions submitted by the good folks who attended my PAISTA presentation last week, but first I plan to offer some reflections on the Raw Dog Screaming book event that I previewed in my October 19 post. Look for that soon.

Until then, let me know what ultra-short story tops your list of the shortest tales of all time. Use the media buttons for FB, Twitter, or Email in the upper right corner of this page . . . or (better yet) post a comment below.

Scop on !


Simulated manuscript of  “Baby Shoes” is from May 23, 2013.
“Cosmic Report Card: Earth” copyright (c) 1973 by Mankind Publishing Co, Inc.
“Gasp” copyright (c) 2002 by Michael A. Arnzen.
“Knock” copyright 1948 by Standard Magazines, Inc.
Photos of What Everyman Thinks are from Tengri News June 03, 2011.

Putting the Flash in Fiction

October 6th, 2013

Vestal ReviewWhat makes for a good flash fiction story?

The answer is elusive, even though we know the good stories when we read them. They’re the ones that grab our attention, hold our interest, and conclude with a punch. But there’s more to it than that. There always is.

Next week, I’ll be giving a presentation on flash fiction at the Pittsburgh Area Independent School Teachers Association (PAISTA) conference, held this year at Sewickley Academy, just north of Pittsburgh. I’m currently in the process of assembling my notes, rereading some classic stories, seeking out some new ones, and trying to distill what I think I know into a  presentation about short-short fiction.

I’m having a lot of fun in the process.

ShortestOne story I plan on referencing in the presentation is a 55-word masterpiece by Jeffery Whitmore titled “Bedtime Story.” It first appeared in The World’s Shortest Stories, and it still stands as one of the best examples of flash I’ve ever read. Here’s its first line:

“Careful, honey, it’s loaded,” he said, re-entering the bedroom.

It’s a perfect first sentence, and would-be flash-fiction writers can learn a lot from the way it uses just nine words to effortlessly introduce the story’s characters, setting, and conflict. Moreover, I love the way the sentence compels us to read on, bringing to mind the advice Anton Chekov gave to A. S. Gruzinsky: “One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

Flash 6.1 Front CoverIt’s also worth noting that the story relies primarily on concrete nouns and active verbs. It contains few modifiers and avoids details that don’t contribute to the reveal at the end of the story. Yet the ending surprises and satisfies in ways that make “Bedtime Story” a masterwork of economy and precision. If you haven’t read it, you really should. The book is available in paperback and ebook for well under $10.00 – worth the investment if you’re interested in writing the stuff.

I’ve also been reading some of the genre’s newest entries, stories published in the current issues of The Vestal Review (which bills itself as “the longest-running flash fiction magazine in the world”) and Flash Fiction Online. Both magazines pay professional rates, and their stories are just a few clicks away.  There’s also a print magazine titled Flash, published twice a year by the University of Chester. Highly recommended.

FFOBanner4While you’re perusing the latest stories, be sure to check out “His Brother’s Bite” by Gillian Daniels in the October issue of Flash Fiction Online. Here’s the opening sentence:

Maurice showed me his twin brother by lifting up his shirt and pointing to the teeth growing out of his stomach.

Once again, notice how the author introduces the characters right up front. Stories are about people, not weather or landscape. In longer works, you might be able to open with mood-evoking details or panoramic vistas. (James A. Michener got rich doing that, but he never wrote flash.)

FB-ImagineStill, you will find plenty of flash fiction that opens with landscape and weather. You’ll even find some stories that contain no characters at all. Fredric Brown’s “Imagine” comes to mind, but such works seems more like prose poems than stories (and few writers have the skill to pull it off as well as Brown).

I’ve also been going through my files, digging out some of my own flash fiction from 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories, 100 Fiendish Little Frightmares, 365 Scary Stories, and others. I need to select a couple to present at the conference.

I just hope they hold their own against the stories mentioned above.

Piano-LessonFinally, I’ll be concluding my afternoon at PAISTA with a presentation on the songs featured in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. “Hesitation Blues,” “Wining Boy,” and “Oh, Lord, I Want You to Help Me” are all referenced in the course of the play, and I’ll be performing them and talking about how they contribute to the work.

Look for a follow-up post sometime next week. After that, you can expect at least two or three entries devoted to my upcoming readings at the World Fantasy Convention and the University of Brighton.

Until then, scop on!

Image Credits:

The Vestal Review Issue 43, “The Eye Opener,” copyright © 2013; The World’s Shortest Stories, Running Press Books; Flash Vol. 6 No. 1., University of Chester; Flash Fiction Online banner,; “Imagine” by Frederic Brown, from The Best of Frederic Brown, Del Ray, 1977 (currently out of print), The Piano Lesson, Plume, 1990.