Special Issues & Guides » 55 Fiction

Few words, many rules

Announcing our 2012 25th annual 55 Fiction short story contest



Twenty-five years ago, New Times founder Steve Moss dreamed up a short story competition that would make James Joyce salivate. He challenged readers to tell a tale of love, murder, intrigue, adventure, or revenge in 55 words or less. The competition caught on, and soon entries from around the country streamed in. They came from third graders, inmates, professional writers, and foreigners practicing their English. The word limit was both tantalizing and intimidating. After all, the English language has 1,010,649.7 words and counting—this according to the Global Language Monitor—and all the competition requires is a piddling 55. But no sooner did writers begin crafting their micro masterpieces than the realization of their enormous difficulty set in. Shorter doesn’t mean easier, but those who have mastered the genre sure make it seem that way. That’s why, as the submission deadline for this year’s competition approaches (psst: it’s June 4, 2012), we bring you the official contest rules—plus a few tips to help you on your way. The winners will see their brilliance printed in a New Times cover story on July 5, 2012.

Official rule No. 1: It has to be a story. Not a poem, a wish, a thought, a rehashed joke, or the punch line from a commercial that you saw—which, by the way, we probably did, too. By “story,” we mean that it should have a setting, characters, a conflict, and a resolution. If this sounds like a lot to fit into 55 words, consider that “setting,” “characters,” and “conflict” can be encapsulated by two warring voices inside a person’s head. Also, characters needn’t be human, or even animate. Your protagonist might be a Twinkie, your villain a freshly sharpened pencil. By “conflict,” we simply mean that something must happen. And by “resolution,” we mean an outcome. Something must be learned—by the reader anyway, even if your characters are none the wiser. There are other rules, but first, consider these choice specimens from years past.


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.

—Gabe Birkley


At the Bar

“Afternoon, Detective. What’ll it be?”

“Anything, George, provided it’s strong.”

“I judge that cryogenics lab break-in didn’t turn up any leads?”

“Not this time, George. … God, this drink’s good.”

“Glad you like it, Detective. That drink’s new. Boss says it’s from concentrate.”

—Horatio Bartle


Letter to Arturo

Dear 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,


—Zander Pingel


All of these are perfectly realized stories. They have a setting, or at least hint of one. A backyard, a bar, a driveway. They have characters, one of them obliviously racist, another unwittingly murderous—perhaps! Ha ha! Things happen, though not necessarily in the present. And we come away having learned something about our characters, like that one of them is either delusional or a giraffe.

But for every killer story we come across, there are 100 tired clichés we continue to encounter over the years. Chief among them is the it-was-all-a-dream ending. Cut that out, OK? Then there are the countless stories that appear to be about sex, but turn out to be about something silly and mundane, like peeling a hard-boiled egg. And the ones that appear to be about a human character displaying very odd behavior, but then, in an unsurprising twist, the character turns out to be an animal. Like, “Susan meowed and rubbed her head on Scott’s leg. She wanted a treat.” A few sentences later: “After all, Susan is a cat.” Please, stop writing these. They are no longer charming.

Anyway, this has all been part of rule No. 1 (“it must be a story”). The other rules are as follows:

• 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 like re-open and re-start, which connect words to prefixes that are not words in their own right.

• 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? 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 gets in to our July 5 issue, you’ll be hearing from us.

Send or deliver it to 1010 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo, CA, 93401, or e-mail it to [email protected]. Or just call us up and read it to us over the phone! Just kidding. Do not do that.


Arts Editor Anna Weltner bought a radar gun for this year’s contest. Contact her at [email protected].

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