It is readily accepted by most sane people that much of Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction is his best work. Many of these stories are not what today we would call short stories, but instead are perfect examples of flash fiction. A few weeks ago I bought a copy of “The First Forty-Nine Stories” from Amazon and I have devoured its contents. I am very fond of the story “Old Man at the Bridge.”
Still a mystery remains for me about one aspect of the collection. I have not been able to find any reference to this anywhere, so maybe someone will provide more information. A quirk of the collection is that between many of the short stories listed in the contents are other stories always less than a page and always given a chapter number.
Personally, I find many of these mystery stories are the best stories in the book. The topics covered are fairly similar: most of the stories are about The Great War or bull fighting. Quite a few of them feature Nick Adams. Always, however, the stories are tight and say just enough to convey a point.
These are fine examples of precision storytelling. Take a look at the story called “Chapter V”:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.
There are no simplistic rules for wannabe writers to be found here. All I will do is ask you a question which takes you down an interesting avenue of thought for both readers and writers. (This question can also be applied to games, films, comics, whatever.) How much can be taken away from a text until it becomes incoherent?
You have your homework. I encourage you to think about it. And if anyone thinks that Hemingway’s six word story is a clever answer, they are wrong. Generally most attempts to tell stories in such a confined space rely on abandoning the techniques of normal length fiction and rapidly become uninteresting experiments with no real substance. It is also the obvious answer and provides little added understanding. Think harder!