In Praise of the Shortest Story


by Hank Helman.

Brevity in prose calls out our humanity in new, raw ways. I used to praise the longer short story for its ability to unfold and illuminate. Now I will extol, encourage, and support the 1000-word story, the 500-word story and my new favourite– the 200-word short story.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon a website, The 200-Word Short Story run by Brian Coyle, and I am a plus-moins bitchy person for it.

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A little context–I have this program on my computer called StumbleUpon that accesses websites promiscuously. I enter general interests like gadgets, or books, or microbiology and the program’s algorithm delivers all kinds of unusual web sites right to my breakfast table. And yes, since you’re already thinking it, my wife and I do consume the web with our breakfast, our laptops nearly touching, and hell yes, we sometimes even message each other from two feet away. We laugh about it and of course wouldn’t change a thing- except for maybe getting better laptops. Anyways, (Albertans are allowed to use and write the word anyways—it’s in the constitution) after one tap on the enter key a few mornings ago up popped the friendly-as-a-greeting-card site, The 200 Word Short Story.

My first impression of Mr. Coyle’s site was predictable. Who can tell a worthwhile tale in 200 words? Why bother? After all, War and Peace’s word count is 582,367. Crime and Punishment is 211,256. Catcher in the Rye a mere 73,243. Praise be the Lord, I have written single sentences longer than 200 words; getting my father to hang up the phone is easily a thousand-word exercise, and I’m pretty sure that most telemarketing scripts are in the high triple digits. (Note: the word count on this article is already at 281). I had dumbly assumed literary greatness and a Nobel Prize for Literature would never be awarded for brevity. I figured such minutiae in letters would be a waste of time.

And that’s all it took. Just the tiniest tingle of doubt that it couldn’t be done meant I had to try it.

I think I may never write long again.

Discipline, challenge, word choice, word importance, dialogue, character, plot, nuance, all of this was suddenly under a microscope and the tease of selecting the exact right 200 words was delicious. Parse, eliminate, contract-PEC for short-became a delightful exercise– and oddly empowering.

I don’t know, I just felt more honest as I edited down, more genuine as I searched for another more direct way to create a feeling, and I found I had to rely on the reader’s intelligence to get it and to get me, I guess.

The story I submitted- and they published- is called “Cole.” I’ll be sticking with 200 to PEC away and with respect, fist bump to the heart, you should try it too. This is one of the best writing challenges. And it only took me 480 words to tell you about it.

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