On this day in 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act which established a 55 mile per hour speed limit on the nation’s highways. Nixon’s effort to conserve gasoline was spurred by the 1973 oil crisis where Arab countries declared an oil embargo, dramatically increasing U.S. gas prices (1).
Just as reducing your speed when driving increases fuel efficiency, reducing your word count when writing increases your communication efficiency, making every word count. One excellent way to practice limiting your word count is by trying your hand at an exciting new genre of writing called 55 Fiction. In these short, short stories, you must not exceed the 55-word limit.
Since 1987, Steve Moss, the editor of New Times, a California newspaper, has held a Fifty-Five Fiction Story Contest. The contest has spawned two books of 55 Fiction: The World’s Shortest Stories and The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death.
As Moss explains in his introduction, 55-Fiction is a little like a one-minute episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or “what O. Henry might have conjured up if he’d had only the back of a business card to write upon . . . .” Shakespeare said it best: “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and in the 21st century, where sound bites compete for our limited attention span, 55-Fiction is the perfect form (2).
The keys to 55-Fiction are a good story, concise — yet clear — writing, and a denouement with a payoff. Surprise, irony, and/or humor are the hallmarks of truly great short, short stories.
While 55-fiction is fun to read and write, these are not just frivolous throwaways. The writer of a good 55-Fiction piece must practice many of the key techniques of any good writer: clear diction, vivid detail, concise language, careful revision, and thoughtful editing.
Here are a couple of examples:
It’s a dark summer evening. Lightning strikes in the distance. Two young lovers rendezvous. She lies sleeping. He kisses her soft, yet strangely warm lips. He makes a toast to his love and drinks. As he swallows, his cell phone rings. He grabs it with a trembling hand. “Romeo! Stop! Listen! Juliet’s not really dead!!”
He shivered in the darkness. Long ago, there had been 12 in his pack, disappearing over time. Only he remained. Suddenly, a change; the light at the end of the tunnel was coming nearer. Giant hands grabbed him, pulling him towards the light. God, perhaps? Then, a voice: “Mom, we’re down to the last soda!”
Today’s Challenge: Fifty-Five Test Drive
What is an anecdote that you can tell in no more than 55 words? Write your own 55-word short story. Use the guidelines below. If you can’t think of an original story, consider adapting something from classic literature, as in “Last Call.”
Five Guidelines for Writing Fifty-Five Fiction:
- Like any good story, these stories need a setting, characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.
- Stories may be any genre: sci-fi, romance, detective, horror, parody, etc.
- Don’t try to write exactly 55 words on your first draft; instead, try to write a short-short story on the first draft. Then, go back to revise and edit until you’re down to 55.
- Humor, puns, suspense, or parody are encouraged.
- For more examples of 55 Fiction, go to the New Times web site.
(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: Less is more. -Andrea del Sarto