Postcard Storytime

Postcard Storytime

Ruth E. Walker

Earlier this month, Gwynn explored the idea of story length and short story forms in a blog about story size, Does Size Matter? In it, she lists several forms of short fiction.

I have a soft spot for the power of a postcard story. I’ve taught a couple of workshops that take a close look at that form, a kind of snapshot story of few words.

Like all super-short forms, it is extremely hard to write a compelling tale that engages readers and challenges them to consider another world, another life lived. But it is a brilliant exercise for any writer to attempt. Why? Because it helps you learn the value of a few words that can say so much. And that, my friends, is a vital editing skill for any writer.

What is a postcard story:

Originally, a postcard story was supposed to be short enough to fit on a postcard. A beginning, middle and end boiled down to only the absolutely necessary words to set a scene and deliver an emotional impact.

For a long time, it seemed that 250 words was the magic number as a word-count maximum. But it is in the eye of the beholder and some contests have set higher and lower word counts.

For our purposes, let’s just focus on 250 words maximum. How can anyone write something that short that is also powerful to read?

Start 30 seconds before the end

Unlike a longer work, your opening in a postcard story is almost your ending. There’s no room to set up characters or setting. Backstory is implied without explanation and with the barest of detail.

We’re told to start a story in the middle of things happening – in medias res. But for successful postcard stories, that needs to become in quae tandem – at the end of things. So think in terms of moments, like the smoke rising from the barrel of a shotgun, the click of a closing motel door, a cold breeze through a broken window.

Great postcard stories capture the moment just after something significant has happened and because of it, everything changes.

Be suggestive

You are not setting up complex themes; rather this is a single scene with one main idea at work. But if you want a postcard story to work as well as a longer work, you need that scene to contain richness and depth—even if it is only ‘implied’.

  • characters must appear to have a life
    • Use Action:
      • brushed dirt from his pants
      • slips off her ballet shoes
      • takes a sip from the broken cup
  • setting may be a mere blink but with that blink we ‘see’ specifics
    • Describe with energy
      • hairline cracks in the paint
      • fireball sun sets behind the mountains
      • whisper of dust on the bookshelf
  • your plot must be larger than its 250 words
    • Go Big thematically (but keep it small)
      • death/birth
      • conflict/peace-making
      • letting go/taking charge

End with a bang

The last line is the killer in all short fiction and never more so than in a postcard story. It makes the final “sense” of the snippet, the ah-ha. It suggests what is to come without stating it. The very best last lines in a postcard story will make you suck in your breath and then hold it for a moment before releasing it.

I can’t help you to know how to write this last line. But I can tell you that you’ll recognize when you have it right because you will suck in your breath and then hold it for a moment. And then, release it.

Job done, you’ll say.

Curious about postcard stories?

Visit award-winning Irish writer Jan Carson’s site to view some of her postcard stories, published by Emma Press. Cheeky. Clever. Disturbing.

Job done and done well.

Curious about short fiction in general?

More on writing short fiction in Gwynn’s post Thoughts on Short Fiction. And you can read our winning entry in last year’s under-500 words story contest: Woman with Cigarette by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Does Size Matter

Does Size Matter

Gwynn Scheltema

A couple of weeks ago, I shared my thoughts on writing short fiction and in the comments, someone asked, “How short is short fiction?”

That’s a loaded question because, like poetic forms, short fiction comes in a host of forms and lengths and changes with the times.

This sample list of interesting short fiction forms and their word counts comes from a seminar I gave a few years ago at the Ontario Writers’ Conference:

Six word stories

Should provide a moment of conflict, action, and resolution that gives the sense of a complete story transpiring in a moment’s reading.

@twitterfiction

Fiction in 140 characters or less.

Expresso Stories – 25 words or less

A literary form for today’s frothed-up, on-the-hoof, want-it-all-now consumer lifestyle: complete stories that take no longer to read than an espresso takes to slurp.

Hint Fiction – 25 words or less

A hinting story, should do in twenty-five words what it could do in twenty-five hundred, that is, it “should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world.”

Trifextra – exactly 33 words

Stories written from prompts, and having something to with the number three.

Trifecta – no fewer than 33 and no more than 333 words.

A competition in which writers are given a one-word prompt, use the third given definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to write a story between 33 and 333 words.

Minisaga, mini saga or mini-saga – exactly 50 words [AKA ultra-shorts or microstory.]

Started by The Daily Telegraph and used in business as an educational tool to stimulate creativity. They are often funny or surprising and are described as “bite-sized lessons for life and business.”

Dribble Fiction – exactly 50 words

An offshoot of Drabble with the word count reduced to 50 words.

55 Fiction – 55 words

From the New Times short story contest. 55 Fiction has: a setting; one or more characters; conflict and resolution.

Postcard Fiction – usually 50 words or less but up to 250

Literary exploration, usually inspired by photographs and able to fit on a standard size postcard.

Micro fiction – under 100 words

A complete fictional story in a limited number of words in any genre.

Drabble Fiction – exactly 100 words

Originated in UK science fiction fandom in the 1980s. Drabble calls for brevity, testing the author’s ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in a confined space.

Feghoot or Shaggy dog story – usually 100 to 250 words

Usually sci-fi, centers around or concludes with a pun, has a title character in a dangerous situation, any place in the galaxy, any past or future time. Can involve the travelling device with no name, represented as the “)(“.

Haibun – usually 100 to 1000 words.

English haibun is of one or more paragraphs of prose coupled with one or more haiku. It may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. Accompanying haiku has a direct or subtle relationship with the prose.

Short Story 1000 to 15000 words.

Word count varies with publication form: collections, anthologies, magazines, or journals; print or on-line; genre or not. Print costs for journals, magazines and anthologies usually keep the count between 2000 – 4000.Genre stories for anthology collections can go to 7500 words. Single author collections often have one longer story up to 15000 words coupled with shorter stories.

Novellette – 7500 to 17500

Novella – 17500 to 40,000, sometimes 50000

Bottom Line:

  • Write your story the length it needs to be without thinking about word limits. Decide afterwards if you want to edit it to fit a certain count.
  • If you hope to sell your story, figure out what magazines or anthologies would be the best fit for the content/genre/style of your story, then look up their submission guidelines.
  • For contests, don’t ever exceed the stated limit.
Thoughts on short fiction

Thoughts on short fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

With the shortest day of the year around the corner, I thought I would write today about short fiction. I began my writing journey writing short stories and poetry and in many ways , I think the two are alike.

Here are some of my random thoughts on writing short fiction. Interestingly, the same perspectives can be applied to writing poetry.

  • Short stories are like poems in that they steer the reader into reading the piece more than once, and the reader finds something new on each reading.
  • A “mainstream” short story can be about anything: a mood, a character, a setting, even a flashy writing style. A genre short story is about an idea. The fictional elements—character, plot, setting, etc.—are only there to dramatize the idea.
  • One idea is enough for a story. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language. For experimental writing choose everyday events. The stranger the idea, the more real the world must seem to be.
  • Know whose story it is, who is telling the story, and why.
  • The short story is a controlled release of information. Never rush or compact it. The fewer the words, the more air it needs to breathe.
  • Symmetry is more important than plot. A short story must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click. Repetition is good for symmetry but must be used sparingly, like salt.
  • One world only. Dreams are out of place in a short story.
  • One POV is enough. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • Go easy on character descriptions. Nobody cares what your characters look like. They only need to be able to tell them apart.
  • Leave stuff out. It’s what’s left out that makes what’s left in do its work more effectively.
  • Withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. When the reader knows everything, the story is over.