Robert Swartwood is a man after my own heart: a lover of the incredibly short-form. Earlier this year he coined the term “Hint Fiction” to mean “a story of 25 words or less that suggests a larger, more complex story.” Then he got a book deal from W.W. Norton to edit an anthology. Boom, like lightning.
When I first read about hint fiction (and some of its examples), I already had a very similar take on my ideal nano story. I completely agree with the definition quoted above as a basis for good short stuff (and I work from a very similar angle in choosing stories for Nanoism). But for some reason, in my experience (and especially in reading submissions for his original contest), many hint/nano stories are a not standalone stories at all but rather some kind of movie tag-line/newspaper headline that alludes to a story. They’re much more compelling if you imagine the guy from the movie previews reading them (though, really, wouldn’t that be true for everything?). If you read one of the various “six word story” outlets, you’ll see an even more extreme version of what I mean. Entertaining—yes. Standalone—yes. Story? Debatable.
I’m not the kind of person who says a story can’t be short, obviously. But in my reading, it should have some self contained action. The beginning, middle, end definition is not particularly useful. Nor is the conflict, climax, resolution triad. In nanofiction, these elements are often implied in a word or phrase (hinted at, so to speak). Given the length, it’s unavoidable. For “story”-judgment, I tend to ascribe to the idea of “change.” There must be some fundamental change for the character, however slight, from onset to ending. And to really hit home, the greater story must be hinted at. Leaving it out for the reader to make up is not hinting—it’s omission, and they are not the same thing.
One person killing another person with nothing else is not a story (but it is by far the most common theme I see). The author needs to give the reader some help in deciphering a greater narrative arc. There is a level of necessary vagueness to the form, but just tossing a scene out in 25 words does not a story make. All scene and no story is not good. All plot and no scene is also not good—it’s not supposed to be a synopsis, after all. You need both.
Submissions to the Hint Fiction anthology are open until the end of the month. While Mr Swartwood has already received over a 1000 entries and will publish probably no more than 150, perhaps your submission could net you $25 delicious dollars and an excuse to say, “Oh, why yes, I was published by Norton.”