In an age increasingly marked by 140-character “tweets,” Facebook “status” updates, and text messaging, brevity is the key to success. Conversation is reduced to a jumble of nigh-incomprehensible letters and symbols. Complex ideas have to be reduced to broadcastable sound bytes. Who has time in their busy schedule to pause for anything of great length?
Perhaps it is this constant crunch of time, this short-attention-span culture, that has allowed the short-short story to wriggle out of obscurity and into some degree of prominence. “Twitterature” has begun to appear online. National Public Radio regularly hosts three-minute story contests. Online literary journals dedicated solely to extremely short stories have sprung up, and many established print journals have begun to publish greater numbers of short-shorts.
The short-short story is a nebulous form, ill-defined because it is still emerging, still lurking at the fringes of recognition as a true literary form, but begging to be pursued and explored. Despite its brevity (or rather, because of it), the short-short story can be quite powerful. The following study is an examination of this form on several levels, ranging from the academic (establishing a working definition) to the creative (producing original samples of short-short stories).
Chapter I, “An Emerging Form,” is an overview in which the short-short story is described in relation to other types of literature. Its proper name and most basic technical characteristics are established, and a working definition is proposed. A brief history of the form with an eye toward the short-short story's future possibilities is also provided.
Chapter II, “Literary Characteristics,” is an exploration of the short-short story's various types, the qualities which set it apart from other types of writing, the way it treats particular literary characteristics, and the techniques which writers use to produce exceptional short-short stories.
Chapter III, “Theory in Practice,” is just that: the application of the previous two chapters' research to the production of a small short-short story collection. This collection, entitled “Resistance,” represents an attempt to write short-short stories that are unlike the majority of those found online or in anthologies in that they pair the form with the historical fiction genre. The result is a collection that in some respects veers off the path of the “traditional” short-short story (if such a nebulous form may be said to have a “tradition”) while at the same time taking advantage of some of the form's strengths.
The power of the short-short story to appeal to many in a time-crunch society should not be ignored. Rather, this form deserves the space and attention to expand and evolve. Far from being a “trick” form or a type of consumerist word candy, the short-short story challenges and stimulates both readers and writers in ways that other forms of literature cannot. It may be the most suitable literary form for satisfying the needs of a society that is pressed for time but still hungry for potent stories.
Malinda Taylor ’10
Hometown: Rockford, Tennessee
Thesis Title: The Short-Short Story
Advisor: Mr. Kim Trevathan
It may seem ironic to write an 18,670-word paper about a literary genre that celebrates brevity.
But that's just what one Maryville College senior did.
Malinda Taylor '10 has been writing since she was little girl, producing both fiction and non-fiction.
And her family has inspired much of her work.
“My parents have definitely instilled in me the social justice values that emerge in much of my writing. My mother is a social worker, and my father does a lot of volunteer work,” Taylor explained. “My grandmother has influenced a lot of my non-fiction writing, which has focused on the history of a one-time family farm in what is now Oak Ridge, Tenn.”
So, it was natural for the writing/communication major to lean toward creative writing with a historical bent for her Senior Study.
While researching thesis topics, Taylor read several short-short stories online and was pleased to discover how poetic they can be.
Intrigued with the idea of exploring this genre, she spoke with her Senior Study advisor, Kim Trevathan, assistant professor of writing/communication.
“I was very interested in the topic, not only from an analytical point of view, but also putting it into practice,” he said. “Not much has been written about the short-short genre, but it has been around awhile.”
Chapter one is an overview of the genre, providing a brief history and a working definition. For the purposes of her study, a short-short story is defined as “a category of prose literature including pieces up to 750 words which follow the formal structure of a story (that is, consist of a conflict, crisis, and resolution).”Taylor's 78-page study delves into the intricacies of the short-short, covering three chapters.
In her thesis, she stated, “The short-short story is a nebulous form, ill-defined because it is still emerging, still lurking on the fringes of recognition as a true literary form, but begging to be pursued and explored.”
Chapter two explores the short-short's literary characteristics. Taylor describes five types: single incident, time-defying, mind-revealing, reality-defying and protean.
The single incident story revolves around one focal point and spans up to a few hours' worth of action. A time-defying story either expands or compresses the reader's experience of time. A mind-revealing story emphasizes the narrative voice, which usually takes on the form of a monologue. A reality-defying story is a modern-day parable or fable while a protean story ignores ordinary conventions of prose literature, such as paragraphs and assumes forms that are not commonly used in storytelling.
Most short-shorts, regardless of their type, share the qualities of brevity, intensity and surprise, she pointed out.
Whereas the first two chapters are academic, the third is application. Taylor wrote eight short-shorts for her collection, entitled “Resistance,” which are unlike the majority of short-shorts in that she utilized historical fiction.
Drawing her inspiration from Diane Ackerman's creative non-fiction, The Zookeeper's Wife, Taylor's short-shorts focus on heroism and survival. All of her stories take place in Warsaw, Poland during the Nazi occupation (1939 - 1945) and vary in length, between 100 and 573 words.
“Far from being a "trick" form or a type of consumerist word candy, the short-short story challenges and stimulates both readers and writers in ways that other forms of literature cannot,” she concluded in her thesis. “It may be the most suitable literary form for satisfying the needs of a society that is pressed for time but still hungry for potent stories.”
She pointed out that “Twitterature” is gaining popularity thanks to radio stations offering three-minute story contests and literary journals dedicated solely to extremely short stories.
According to Taylor, the most challenging aspect of the study was the creative third chapter. Because she wanted to ensure the cultural and historical accuracy of the stories, she consulted with several professors and completed the additional research necessary to provide background information for the reader.
Impressed that Taylor took on a ground-breaking project, Trevathan recommended the study for the College's permanent library collection.
“I admire Malinda for trying something ambitious and original for which there aren't a lot of models. She put a lot of work into it and now she has a well-written and well-developed thesis,” he stated. “Short-shorts are difficult to write. I know because I've tried writing them without a whole lot of success.”
Taylor commented that she grew throughout the Senior Study process and appreciates the guidance her advisor provided.
“This was the first time I set out to achieve a specific goal - a very directed creative writing project. I was able to produce something,” she shared. “Professor Trevathan was a great sounding board and provided concrete resources for me to consider.”
Actually, both student and professor were stretched during the study.
“We struggled with how to evaluate these stories - what makes a good short-short and what makes one fail. We also learned what sort of criteria to apply to judge their quality,” commented Trevathan.
The end product is a work about which they can be proud. The study brings in several disciplines, pointed out Trevathan, including literary criticism, history and creative writing.
As far as post-graduation plans, Taylor is considering going to a different orphanage in India in the same region where she volunteered during two January-term trips. She is interested in teaching English classes and helping with after-school creative projects, among other activities. “Plan B,” she said, is to pursue English as a Second Language certification or find another social services position in the U.S.
Of course, Taylor will continue to pursue her passion of writing, possibly submitting work for publication.
“I am very aware of the social problems in India and elsewhere. In writing, I have an educating impulse and I want to expose things. I want to use my writings to motivate people to social action,” she said.