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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.

 

 

 

 

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