why saying, "six word novels ARE bullshit" is bullshit

I met my friend Josh in a punk club one night after I had just graduated college and moved to Boise. We were introduced by a mutual friend, and after Josh revealed that he wrote for the Boise Weekly, I made the rookie mistake of telling him that I am also a writer. Newly-graduated writers: don’t do this. Nobody wants to hear about your writing.

Josh, out of politeness, asked what I liked to write. “Flash fiction,” I said, expecting a normal response like, “Oh, cool. I’ll take a look sometime,” and then an abrupt shift in conversation, because who really wants to read the work of a freshly-graduated zygote with no real writing experience?

But, what happened next was magical. Horrible and magical. Josh proceeded to yell at me over the sounds of the band playing about how much he detests the genre. Josh and I have two different versions of the same story, but the point is, what was supposed to be a casual exchange about two people doing the same thing turned into a long, arduous, draining argument that made me think, “This guy is going to make a great friend.”

Flash fiction, contrary to Josh’s description, is actually comprised of 1,000 words or less. You can check out One of These Days by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez for one of the best examples of flash fiction ever written. I write flash fiction ranging from 100 to 1,000 words, a project I began in freshman year of college. I was attracted to the structure, not because of brevity, but because of the challenge it presented. Build a world, a character, and a plot in 100 words? I knew this request was possible with 300 pages, but so few words? Now, that’s a real writing task.

Josh’s argument hinges on the fact that flash fiction is too emotionally ambiguous and lacking in plot to be complete without relying on the reader to fill in the blanks. It relies too much on subjective inference to trick readers into thinking they understand the story’s plot. Josh essentially thinks that without enough content, the story isn’t actually a story.

This argument is absurdly wrong for several reasons. Six word stories highlight that a strong message—whether it’s tragic, comedic, or simply intriguing—can be conveyed with only a few brief words. Stories are just that: messages from an author to a reader.

However, so many writers think these messages need to be complete. They don’t.

Writing lives in a liminal space. Fiction is comprised of strands of truth and shards of lies, and looking beyond just the six word, 100 word, or 1,000 word stories, we can see that the art of storytelling doesn’t rely on completion, in terms of completing a plot, but on the storyteller’s ability to convey a message to her reader. Fiction lands within the in-betweens and contradictions of the human condition (and of a story itself).

Since when does writing not live in this liminal space?

The ephemeral. The intangible. The odd, tucked away places in-between dreams. Flash fiction brings us these spots of time in ways most fiction can’t. It lives in the blurry spaces of the mind, where we struggle to piece together a memory or a dream that slowly drains out of us. Flash fiction is liberating; it encapsulates these spaces and drives readers to infer and interpret.

The nonsensical belief that any story must be complete is an arbitrary rule, just like placing a random word limit on a piece or asking yourself to exclude the word the from your vocabulary. Flash fiction begins and ends with limitations, which can force writers to produce some of their best work, like Marquez’s piece linked above. Many writers find the limitlessness of a page comforting, but a large group of us stare at a blank page and think, “Now what?” Beginning with a set value of rules propels us forward and makes our work better.

The story begins with the box. You write around the box, inside the box, and in the margins of the box. You cut the bullshit. You trim the unnecessary. You cling to the concrete. You argue with yourself about what is most important instead of rambling for pages and pages about the soft architecture of her back. In the end, you’re better for it. You can convey a meaningful message in a handful of words. Flash fiction is a new type of concise writing that encourages authors to argue with themselves, eliminate the bravado, and cinch down words tightly into a compact package that slams readers with a world, characters, and (usually) a surprise ending.

Some of the best works of art came from limitation. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the worst reviewed books of all time because she dared herself to write a complete story in only 300 pages (approximately, depending on which edition you purchase). The traditional novel had not yet been popularized, and critics admonished her for her brevity and lack of substance. Can you imagine that? One of the most celebrated novels of all time criticized because it broke the conventions of what good writing should be.

I wish I could go back and tell Shelley, “Do what you need to do to make your best art as long as you’re not hurting anyone. You go, Mary.” The degree of blithering she received from her contemporaries (who were still churning out 1,000 page tomes every few years) about the laziness of her writing was astounding. But, suddenly, people took notice of Shelley’s concise and moving story. The form of the novel took hold, and now it’s the most popular style of storytelling available.

In my opinion, Frankenstein is absolutely complete story, but for its time, it lacked the thorough details Shelley’s contemporaries deemed appropriate to tell a proper story. Shelley argued that writers are supposed to live in the liminal. I say there’s nothing wrong with readers inferring and thinking and interpreting what they want to see from my words. Go for it. I want to hear about what you think you read.

Because it’s not about completing a story, as in wrapping up a plot. It’s about impacting readers. Flash fiction forces great writers like Josh Gross to ask question after question about baby shoes and write an entire article about why he detests the genre so vehemently. It brings readers closer to the bones of a story. It forces them to confront snapshots of time. Authors can’t know for certain—whether they write 100 word stories or 100,000 word novels—if they’ve answered every question a reader might have, and that’s okay. A good story relies on impact, not length.

Flash fiction makes you think. It sparks loud arguments in bars and forms intense new friendships. It asks readers to think for themselves. That’s what good writing—interesting writing—is supposed to do.

You can read or buy Josh’s quality (and often verbose) work on his website, or check out more of my writing at erinnelson.com.




14 real and made-up words

  1. baishchildegraphe: the embarrassment of reading a journal or diary from childhood
  2. calculanguish: searing frustration and anger at a malfunctioning computer
  3. chrysalis: the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm
  4. consternaleugh: a situation in which you forget which lie you told someone
  5. drogepericulum: a fearful confusion of forgetting you’re high
  6. jouska: a hypothetical conversation that you compulsive play out in your head
  7. kenopsia: the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet
  8. lachesism: the desire to be struck by disaster -- to survive a plane crash, or to lose everything in a fire
  9. mauerbauertraurigkeit: the inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like
  10. mannekille: the feeling of watching a bug you decided not to kill go free
  11. mirenphobia: fear of making eye contact with yourself in the mirror
  12. osseoakhos: the ache of a bone mending itself 
  13. vellichor: the strange wistfulness of used bookshops
  14. videreavinde: a daydream while playing a game about winning the game’s world championship