Author Archives: mbacigalupo

How Short Can a Story Be?

Flash fiction as a genre has risen in prominence and prestige since Norton published the first flash fiction anthology over a decade ago. Norton’s most recent anthology includes such notables Ron Carlson, Robert Coover, Amy Hempel, A. M. Homes, Grace Paley, and Paul Theroux.

The genre has been variously classified as encompassing stories of fewer than 1,500, or 1,000, or 500 or even 300 words. The question often posed is: How short can a work be and still be a story? It seems to me if it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and if it traces a character arc, it qualifies as a story.

The best flash stories pack an emotional wallop. My absolute favorite, entitled “The Wig,” by Brady Udall, has stayed with me—all 382 words—since I first read it more than seven years ago.

Here’s that haunting flash story in toto:


The Wig

By Brady Udall


My eight-year-old son found a wig in the garbage dumpster this morning. I walked into the kitchen, highly irritated that I couldn’t make a respectable knot in my green paisley tie, and there he was at the table, eating cereal and reading the funnies, the wig pulled tightly over his hair like a football helmet. The wig was a dirty bush of curly blonde hair, the kind you might see on a prostitute or someone who is trying to imitate Marilyn Monroe.

I asked him where he got the wig and he told me, his mouth full of cereal. When I advised him that we do not wear things we find in the garbage, he simply continued eating and reading as if he didn’t hear me.

I wanted him to take that wig off, but I couldn’t ask him to do it. I forgot all about my tie and going to work. I looked out the window where a mist fell slowly on the street. I paced into the living room and back, trying hard not to look at my son. He ignored me. I could hear him munching cereal and rustling paper.

There was a picture, or a memory, real or imagined, that I couldn’t get out of my mind: last spring, before the accident, my wife was sitting in the chair where now my son always sits. She was reading the paper to see how the Blackhawks did the night before, and her sleep-mussed hair was only slightly longer and darker than the hair of my son’s wig.

I wondered whether my son had a similar picture in his head, or if he had a picture at all. I watched him and he finally looked up at me. I watched him and he finally looked up at me but his face was blank. He went back to his reading. I walked around the table, picked him up and held him against my chest. I pressed my nose into that wig and it smelled not like the clean shampoo scent I might have been hoping for, but like old lettuce. I suppose it didn’t matter at that point. My son put his smooth arms around my neck and for maybe a few seconds we were together again, the three of us.


Christian Bell in his blog post of October 8, 2009, aptly characterizes the story: “On a technical level, the combination of the opening sentence; the pacing of excellent, original details that establish characters and flesh out their situation; word economy that doesn’t leave you feeling as if something’s missing; and the unforced, heartbreaking conclusion are instructional in how to build a superb flash fiction piece (or any fiction story).”

Plot, pacing, characterization, economy, emotional impact—they’re all there. But analyzing the technical aspects of this work, as Bell acknowledges, does not do justice to its power and beauty.

With “The Wig” Udall not only constructs a story with fewer than four hundred words but creates an unforgettable one at that.





Talking About Love and Raymond Carver

In this month spotlighting lovers, I turn to Raymond Carver for his struggle to define love, a life-giving but elusive gift. In Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the scene is set in a country house with two couples, including the narrator, conversing around a kitchen table, getting drunk… Continue Reading

On Revision

If you’re caught up in resolution-making this January (and who isn’t?), here’s a suggestion: resolve to cultivate an alternative attitude toward revision. Instead of feeling anxious about it, look forward it. If you’re like many writers, you dread revising your work. Anxiety plagues you: Where do you start? Will you end up wiping out the… Continue Reading

How to Build Suspense

Suspense is the essential ingredient in all successful novels; it’s what makes the reader unable to put down your book. But what, exactly, is suspense? And how can you exploit it to captivate readers? The essence of suspense is anticipation, says Brian Klems, a Writer’s Digest blogger (May 9, 2013). The writer creates a sense… Continue Reading

How to Open a Work of Fiction—Part Two

Last month we covered different ways to open a novel or short story, focusing on first chapters and preliminary paragraphs. Now let’s move on to the beginning of the beginning, your story’s first sentence, your first opportunity to hook readers. Writer’s Digest guest blogger, Jacob M. Appel (January 9, 2014), offers seven different approaches to crafting… Continue Reading

How to Open a Work of Fiction—Part One

Every writer’s toolkit should include best practices for quickly drawing readers into the fictive universe. To this end, a large body of craft literature exists on the subject of novel and short story openings. Some tell us, Go for the visceral punch. Others say, Grab the reader’s attention in the first sentence, Arouse her curiosity,… Continue Reading

Why I Write: A Manifesto

A host of indie and traditionally published writers are exhorting authors to share a manifesto with their followers. The dictionary defines manifesto as a statement of values, beliefs and goals. As applied to our profession, it is designed to remind us why we’re writers and to get us back on track when we’ve gone astray.… Continue Reading

What’s the Score on Flash Fiction?

How many words constitute flash fiction? What’s the cutoff? The number seems to vary according to publication. Up to 1000 words according to and submissions criteria. For the cutoff is 500 words. Flash fiction is significantly shorter than short stories, but how short can fiction go and still be recognized as a… Continue Reading

Madoff’s Turn at the Wheel

It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized I was into the middle of the month and hadn’t posted for June. My memory had been swept away in a whirl of celebrations—graduations, birthdays, Mother’s Day. Well, then, better late than never, as “they” are so fond of saying. But what would I write about? Then I… Continue Reading