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Flash Fiction: Can you write a story in just 50 words?

Wednesday 6 November 2013

By Robert Currie

Scottish Book Trust have thrown down the gauntlet, challenging people to write a story in just fifty words. Sounds like a punishingly low word count? Well, while it can be difficult, it’s not impossible. Oh, and just to show you what you’re working with, this paragraph is exactly fifty words.

A few people have suggested to me that writing a short story must be easier than writing a novel (these people tend not to be writers!). It’s not, I’m afraid. I think you actually put more thought into a fifty-word story than a fifty-word paragraph that’s part of something longer. You have to squeeze all the usual elements of a story – character, threat, goals – into a much smaller space. You have to be clever, and it can be a real challenge, but hugely gratifying when it works!

Each month, the 50 Word Fiction Competition provides you with a prompt – something to inspire your story. Previous examples have included a photo of a fantastical cavern, and a watch. With a fifty word limit, what this means, is that you have to make your story stand out very, very quickly. Whatever your first idea is when you look at that picture, scrap it. Someone else will have had it. Scrap the second idea too, unless you think it’s really good. By your third or fourth idea, you might just be onto something that nobody else is going to think of, and that’s a very valuable thing.

Since we’re talking about standing out, think about what you can do differently. Aside from your idea (which is all up to you, I’m afraid!), think about writing in an unexpected style – an unusual tense, or a different point-of-view perhaps.

You need to be a really economic writer – it’s not enough to just trim off the fat, you need to cut down to the bone. Ask yourself: do you really need that adjective? If you do, you’d better make sure it’s the perfect word to describe your character. Think about connotations – the associations we make with certain words. What symbolism could you achieve if instead of the word ‘beautiful,’ you used the word, ‘angelic?’

You might have heard the famous six-word story by Ernest Hemingway: For sale, baby shoes, never worn. It’s so spartan that its impact comes, mostly, not from the words themselves, but from the reader and their interpretation of them. The audience is left to imagine the story themselves – the sad circumstances that led to the placing of this tragic small ad. Just like they taught you in school, all stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end (not easy in fifty words, I know, but Hemingway managed it in six!). Remember that they don’t have to come in that order – starting at the end can often lead to a nice twist. And like Hemingway, you don’t have to expand upon them. Give your reader little hints that are just enough for them to fill in the gaps themselves. Make them work for it! You’ll free up your word count, and your reader will get to stretch their imagination.

It’s worth remembering though, in the words of George Orwell, “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Go with your gut, write something you’re passionate about, and create something you’re proud of... in fifty words.


Robert Currie

Robert Currie received a 2012/13 New Writers Award. His first collection of short fiction, ’Lies and Concerns: Ten Short Stories’, is available on Kindle. You can find out more about him at robcurrie.net.

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