Can a story be too short? (Part 2)

How long should a blog post be?

How long is a piece of string? The answer is the same to both questions.

Blog posts, as with stories of any kind, do not have a ceiling. They do not have a prescribed length, contrary to what the experts say. These same experts say that people don't have the time or inclination to read long posts. But what they fail to tell you is they won't read short posts either - if the posts don't interest them.

Blog posts, like any story, can be any length they need to be, to tell their story and communicate their message. No shorter, and definitely no longer.

In Part 1 we asked, how short can a story be? Hemingway gave us a terrific six word answer. Margaret Atwood equalled Hemingway's achievement with her own six word story:

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.

Not bad, eh :)

See Part 1 for the full story.

Can a story be too short? (Part 1)

Perhaps you've read the short story attributed to Ernest Hemingway. His fellow writers bet that he couldn't write a story in six words. They lost the bet:

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

This may be the shortest story ever told. And it works on every storytelling level. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It tells the truth, it has a hero (probably two), a goal,  and an obstacle which in this case turned the story into a tragedy. Above all,  these six words created an experience that made us think and feel and imagine.

But can a story be too short? The answer is yes and no. Hemingway's story wasn't too short. But many of the stories we read today are too short or too long. Examples abound. In fact, many of the blog postings that appear in my mailbox are far too short, if I define short as un-meaningful. Not to pick on a posting from Good Life Fitness, because they are one of many examples, but they do provide a great example of a story that is too short. Here's the story. Below the post I will try and explain why it was too short.

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Fitness partners for life: How one couple really is living the good life

Most people walk into a gym to make their life better through fitness, little did I know walking into the gym would lead to finding my ultimate partner in life and fitness! Last year my husband Kevin and I met at a GoodLife Fitness gym. Minutes into our first date it was clear, a shared love of health and fitness would be the most stable building ground for an amazing connection.
I’d always seen my commitment to health as a solo event. Our relationship has taught me true lasting commitment is built on same values and true passion which we held separately before finding the other. Now, each day when we work out together as we support each other and cheer each other on through every pull up or curl it reminds to do the same in our daily lives. Just over a year after that first interrupted workout we are now husband and wife have hundreds of sets under our belts and thousand more workouts to do together, there’s barely enough time in our lifetime to get it all! We love living the good life!

Why is this "story" too short?

There are at least a couple of reasons. I think part of the problem is that we don't know who these people really are. They could almost be a fictitious couple, given how little we know about them. As a result, let's face it, they come across as cardboard characters. And because we're human and not termites (who care mightily about cardboard) our emotional commitment to their story fades away rather quickly.

It's also because there isn't really any obstacle. "We met at the gym, we got married." Great. But where is the test? Where are the trials and tribulations? I read somewhere that stories are heightened versions of our own reality. They're not simply tales of our day to day lives. Even soap operas are more than that.

Sometimes it's important to remember that reading a great story is like watching Wayne Gretzky (or Sydney Crosby) play hockey. It seems effortless, but in reality what we are witnessing is years of training combined with talent. Training is critical to superior achievement, and the craft and the skill is as important as the innate genius - whatever genius is.

More to come in Part 2.

Kurt Vonnegut on storytelling

Mr. V. sure knew how to spin a story

The following eight points are Vonnegut's clear-eyed advice to writers of short stories, and while it some of it -- like being a sadist -- doesn't exactly apply to business stories (LOL), much of it does.

Get to the point, he says, create a rooting interest (a hero), and write as if you're writing to only one person. Truer words have never been spoken.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

From his book, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

(thanks to