The World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest Explained
In this video you’ll find a brief but compelling lecture from Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winner, professor of fiction at Florida State University, and standing judge of Southeast Review’s annual fiction competition, the World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest. Here, Professor Butler remarks upon what he sees as the most crucial components of not only short-short stories but also fiction in general. Anyone interested in submitting to this contest (which you can do here) would benefit from watching this video, so they might better understand how their writing will be evaluated, while also potentially gaining a new framework for how to address many of the most important facets of fiction altogether—matters such as motive, selfhood, and desire, all of which must be addressed, in some way or another, in one’s writing.
To give some important context, for this competition, all interested writers will anonymously submit a single short-short story (of up to five hundred words) or up to three short-short stories in one packet, after which the fiction team evaluates these pieces and sends the semifinalists on to Professor Butler. At this point, he picks the winner and finalist, assessing them in terms of the theory explained in this video, which can be understood as the Unified Field Theory of Yearning.
Professor Butler does a far better job of explaining his theory than any of us could, but as many of us here at Southeast Review have taken his class ourselves and view this understanding of writing as incredibly useful for not only our own work but also evaluating the writing of others, we’d like to emphasize some components of this video and explain in our own words what we’re looking for.
Short-short stories are different than “regular” short stories for reasons both blatantly obvious and slightly less so. Simply put, in a short-short story, you have less space and fewer words to make a case for your art. Although most literary journals and magazines have some sort of page limit or word count, the short-short story form depends upon this boundary, as without it, there would be no difference from the extended version of this form. And yet, a short-short story is not exactly just a regular short story condensed significantly. The beauty of this form depends upon its brevity and finds meaning within it. Therefore, this word limit should not be seen as something constraining but rather as an integral part of its genre that has its own specific guidelines and components.
As Professor Butler says, you may not have time to develop a complete “plot,” as you have come to know this craft term. You won’t be able to include all the dialogue you wish to, and there will likely be a very small cast of characters making up the world of this story. There may only be one scene, or there may be no true scenes at all. Because of this, everything written in a short-short story—every sentence, every phrase, every word—has to be deliberately chosen and purposeful. This is of course crucial with full-length stories as well, but in a short-short story, there is almost no margin for error. Although the structure may be loose and what actually “happens” might be fluid or ephemeral, the writing itself has to express this with deliberation and care. When reading submissions for the contest, this is one of the most important things our team looks for. Beyond good writing in and of itself, is everything here purposeful? Does it show attention? Can we understand what these characters long for, strive for, and yearn for in a relatively small number of words?
This is a difficult task to undertake but an incredibly rewarding one! Every year, our team is amazed with the submissions we read and how much can be achieved with what appears to be quite little. In fact, the winner of our 2021 contest (“The Night with James Dean,” forthcoming in Vol. 40.2 in November) is only one hundred words, but it manages to convey an entire lifetime and convince its readers of the deep and powerful yearning inside its main characters within, we would argue, the very first sentence.
In addition, we would encourage you not to limit Professor Butler’s teachings to your short-short submissions only. Although each reader on the fiction team brings their own preferences and viewpoints to what we read, Professor Butler’s ideas have proven immensely helpful to us as writers, and we believe they can help you, too, no matter if you write short-short stories or full-length ones!
Really, Professor Butler sums it up best with one single question: Who the hell am I? If your writing features a character who is striving to answer this, who needs to answer this beyond any other external goals or desires, you’re already on your way.
We hope this is helpful and look forward to reading your submissions!
The Fiction Team