How Short Can a Story Be?

Hemingway’s apocryphal six-word story – “For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.” — is justly famous. Not because he supposedly wrote it in mere seconds on a cocktail napkin in order to win a bet, but because it shows that a text should be an active partnership between writer and reader. By leaving out so much, the story makes a reader provide the emotional support work, like mortar between bricks, and imbues those six words with an impact a longer piece might lack.

This weekend I read an almost-as-brief story, Misterioso, by Stuart Dybek that I really enjoyed, and that similarly asks the reader to fill in the gaps. It’s short enough to quote here in its entirety:

“You’re going to leave your watch on?”

“You’re leaving on your cross?”

Misterioso is a musical term that indicates a performer should play in a style suggesting mystery. In this case, what’s unsaid – character, scene, plot – certainly generates mystery. But the unknowns of Misterioso also engaged my imagination. Being forced to consider who was speaking, what led up to this brief conversation, and why they were asking these questions made me an active participant in the story. And more importantly, it again made me aware of just how much you can leave out and still actually have a story. A lesson in extreme editing.

Misterioso can be found in Ecstatic Cahoots published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

About Stefen Styrsky

Stefen Styrsky's fiction has appeared in The Offing, Number Eleven Magazine, Inch, and the Tahoma Literary Review. A few years ago he earned an MA degree in fiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Stefen lives in Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Dybek, Flash, Hemingway, Short Stories, Stefen, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

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