Twenty-six years ago, founder Steve Moss challenged readers to write a story in 55 words or less. Billed as “the world’s shortest stories of love and death,” the contest launched a new genre, sometimes called “flash fiction,” and spawned a host of imitators (what’s up, Monterey County Weekly). Every year, the submissions pour in. They come from elementary school English classes. They come from local poets, attracted, perhaps, to the beauty and brevity of a story in 55 words. They come from foreigners practicing their English. They come from prison inmates who have clearly not had sex in a very long time. And every year, we print the judges’ picks in a cover story.
At first, writing a story in just 55 words sounds rather easy. Writers, after all, tend to equate a lower word count with less work. Alas, this is not so! So as the deadline approaches (whisper: It’s Thursday, May 30), we bring you not only the official contest guidelines, but a few tips as well.
Rule No. 1: It must be a story. Not a poem, random thought, or rehashed joke. By “story,” we mean that there must be a character, a setting, a conflict, and a resolution. All of this may sound daunting, but these terms are in fact quite flexible. A “character” need not be human. A “setting” could be inside someone’s head. By “conflict,” we simply mean that something must happen, and by “resolution” we only mean an outcome. Something must be learned—if not by the protagonist, then by the reader. There are other rules, but this by far is the most important. Consider this gem:
Cadaver Clearinghouse Hotline
“Hello, Cadaver Clearinghouse Hotline.”
“You sent Yale Medical School the wrong cadaver. A student walked into the cadaver lab and there was his grandpa, laid open nuts-to-noggin.”
“Shit. He was supposed to go to Purdue. Sorry. How’s the kid?”
“Transferred to vet school.”
“Keep grandpa at Yale then?”
Aside from being one of my very favorite 55 Fiction stories, “Cadaver Clearinghouse Hotline” elegantly collapses all of the facets of a fully realized story. In the first line, a setting is established. Something happens: There’s a cadaver mixup, a medical student freaks out, a phone call is made. There’s a resolution. The student transfers. Grandpa stays at Yale, because, as the character on the line says, why not? This terse exchange clocks in at just 54 words, and is darkly funny and surprising to boot. Let’s have some more.
Logan, the Self-Proclaimed Giraffe
“I am a giraffe!” Logan shrieked to his mom from outside.
“No, you’re not,” his mom yelled back.
But, in fact, Logan was a giraffe. He ate leaves every day for every meal. He hadn’t eaten anything else since spring. Yet Logan’s mother was concerned. Winter was coming, and the leaves were falling and dying.
Letter to Arturo
I’m sorry, but I ran over your cat, or gato as you would say. I will buy you a new one, and we can have a fiesta with tacos, sombreros, and a piñata. I know this will not bring back Señor Mittens, but it will make you feel better.
Viva La Alamo,
Pleasures of the Flesh
Jesus passed Mohammed a cigarette. Mohammed took a deep drag, then sighed with pleasure. Expensive fags were the best. Sheer paradise. And Jesus was one tight dude.
Jesus was sitting in a cloud of blue smoke. Golden light was shining behind his head, in a halo.
The light went out. Another long night in prison.
—Kyra Kitts, Los Osos, CA.
All of these are choice specimens. Each has a setting, or at least an implied one. There are characters; one of them obliviously racist, another either delusional or a giraffe. We come away having learned something, like that our prophets are in fact incarcerated. While a twist ending does not guarantee a successful story, some of the best contain the element of surprise. Unfortunately, for every miniature masterpiece, we come across hundreds of submissions that hackney the twist ending. If you are pondering a story in which the events turn out to be all a dream, well, we’ve seen that one before. Same with the one in which the main character appears to be displaying odd behavior, say, drinking out of the toilet, and it turns out—whoa, twist!—he or she is really a dog. If your main character appears to be having kinky sex but in fact is doing something really ordinary, like cooking an egg, I have a word for you: No.
This has all been part of rule No. 1. The other rules are far more straight-forward:
• No more than 55 words. You don’t have to force the story into 55 words exactly, but this word count is not to be exceeded. A “word” counts as a word if it is found in the dictionary. Hyphenated words count as individual words. (Acid-damaged poetry? Three words). Exceptions include words that are hyphenated with prefixes, such as re-open and re-start.
The title isn’t part of the 55-word count, but it may not exceed seven words.
You may submit as many stories as you like, but no more than one story to a page. Each page must also include your name, city, and how you can be reached.
Contractions are single words. We shan’t, mustn’t, oughtn’t, and daren’t count them as two.
An initial is one word. J.R.R. Tolkien? Just cost you four words. However, acronyms like NASA or GOP count as one word.
Numerals like 5, 67, and 1,087 count as a single word. However, written out as words, they fall under the hyphenation rule. Sixty-seven is two words; 67 is one.
Punctuation is free. Help yourself to as much of it as you want. We won’t tell your word count.
Finally, once you’ve finished tinkering with your tiny tale, get it to us by Monday, June 4, at 5 p.m. Late entries will go into next year’s pile. Due to the huge amount of submissions we receive, we will not be able to confirm receipt of the stories. However, if yours is selected, it will appear in our July 4 issue. ∆
Contact Arts Editor Anna Weltner at firstname.lastname@example.org.