Hint Fiction: Why Shorter Fiction Works by Robert Swartwood
Can 140 characters on Twitter really tell a whole story? Author Robert Swartwood defends very, very short fiction and says it can be as powerful as a 3,000-word story.
There’s been a lot of talk going around the Internet lately about what very short fiction exactly is and how valuable it can be—especially stories so short they can be published on Twitter. After all, we are a generation of computer users who prefer surfing the Web on our cellphones and iPads and who probably communicate daily with friends and loved ones via text message, because, let’s face it, we all have short attention spans.
At least that’s what we’ve all been led to believe. That despite the fact that every year novels longer than 500 pages (think Justin Cronin’s The Passage and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom) continuously hit the bestseller lists, our attention spans have decreased. Blame MTV. Blame James Patterson. Blame Twitter and Facebook and FourSquare. If we keep going at this rate, eventually we’ll have no attention spans left. Even a Lady Gaga music video won’t be able to keep our interest for more than a few seconds.
Or maybe, just maybe, we should blame very short fiction.
A stretch, perhaps, but why not? We have to blame something, don’t we? And it’s clear that over the past several years everything has gotten shorter. First you had the short story, which seemed to be of modest length. Then those stories became shorter and someone called them sudden fiction. Then they became even shorter and someone else called them flash fiction. Then even shorter still—micro fiction—until someone came up with the idea to call 100-word stories drabbles, 50-word stories dribbles. And now people are using Twitter, creating stories in 140 characters or less.
Ernest Hemingway is credited for writing this very short story: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In many ways it was the very first Twitter fiction. A complete story in six words (or 33 characters) that hints at something more. This was the inspiration for what I call Hint Fiction, a term I created almost by accident.
One writer in particular who declined stated, “Thank you, but I would prefer not to participate in the downfall of literature.”
What is Hint Fiction? By definition Hint Fiction is a story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story. The idea caught the attention of the kind people at W.W. Norton and they contracted me to put together a collection of these very tiny stories. Their one caveat was that I needed to solicit a good percentage of stories by famous and established writers.
Of the writers I contacted, many of them expressed interest in the project. Some declined. Some never even responded. One writer in particular who declined stated, “Thank you, but I would prefer not to participate in the downfall of literature.” It was a simple sentence of 14 words (or 79 characters, if you’d prefer) that spoke volumes and really helped me understand what I was getting myself into.
You see, at the start I knew I did not just want to throw together a collection of very tiny stories. I wanted these stories to do something special. So I came up with the thesis that a story of 25 words or fewer can have just as much impact as a story of 2,500 words or more. And as you can imagine (and based on that one writer’s 79-character statement), there was resistance. After all, there is a great divide between traditionalists and non-traditionalists. Some believe writing must follow rules. They believe there is a magical number of words needed to tell a proper story. But the beauty is there are no rules. There is no exact word count that says when a story stops being a story.
Hint Fiction is not trying to overtake other forms of literature. It’s just another kid on the playground, trying to prove it has worth too. If anything, Hint Fiction is an exercise in brevity, with the writer trying to affect the reader in as few words as possible.
But not everyone agrees. Some see this anthology as nothing more than a gimmick, just another testament to that ongoing belief of our ever-decreasing attention spans. They find it hard to believe anybody could spend more than a few minutes to come up with a story of 25 words or fewer. Because yes, it’s not difficult to write a sentence or two and call that a story, but to write a sentence or two of real meaning and depth that manages to contain the heart of an entire story in so few words? That is not so easy.
Others seem to be more open-minded but still don’t care for the book. They’ll find a handful of stories they really enjoy but disregard the rest. This isn’t surprising because Hint Fiction demands a lot from its readers, so much so that if a reader isn’t willing to play along and fill in the blanks then the concept is lost.
If you give the anthology to 100 people, each person is apt to come up with a different favorite and least favorite story. That’s the beauty (and in some ways downfall) of Hint Fiction. Because every reader is unique in his or her own life experience, each will take away something different from the individual stories and ultimately the book.
Because in the end what matters most is not the quantity of words, but the quality of them. Every story demands to be a certain length, no matter if it’s a novel or a traditional short story or a Hint Fiction piece. Hemingway could have used many more words to tell his baby shoes story, but he didn’t need to. All he needed were six words, the right words, to tell an effective story. If that means he was the first to participate in the downfall of literature, then I’m proud to say this anthology takes up where he left off.
Robert Swartwood was born in 1981. His work has appeared in such venues as Chizine, Space and Time, elimae, Wigleaf, Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, and PANK. He is the editor of Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer.