Flash Fiction Judge David Gaffney checks for the vital signs of life in a short-short story

The seven vital signs


This year I am judging the flash fiction category of the Bridport Prize. So what will I be looking for? Well, first I'll be checking that the story is alive, and here are the seven vital signs I'll be looking for.


1: Does it have a beating heart?


A good short-short story should have a strong idea at its core, and you should be able to feel this idea beating away underneath every sentence. You may not be able to see it, or be able to explain what it is; but if it's a good story, you will know it is there.


2: Is it too cold or too hot?


A healthy short-short story can be flaming hot with desire, or cold, distant and awkward to handle; what matters is consistency. A story which is chilly and standoffish most of the way through and then suddenly pulls you up with a volcanic reveal at the end can be disconcerting and ultimately unconvincing. Temperature variations need to managed carefully and dramatic changes for which the reader hasn't been adequately prepared should be avoided. A punchline ending which yanks you out of the story world can destroy your belief in what you have read so far - like falling into an icy pool after you've been bathing in the sun.  


3: Do its eyes follow you about the room?


A good short-short story is aware of you reading it.  It never turns its back on its audience. It is in the room with you at all times. So no tricks of POV, flashbacks or show-pony foot work. If you push the short-short story it pushes back. The story should feel real. It shouldn't smell of wiki-research. Every change of gear will have been earned and will feel as if it was the only thing that could have happened in those circumstances. You are watching the story and the story is watching you. Because with the short-short story you have created something real with a life of its own. 


4: Is it breathing?


A healthy short-short story will expel puffs of air from an aperture somewhere in its centre. Long, powerful bursts. This is the first sign that the story might be a real living thing. But breathing can be faked. So apply the following tests. Does the story hold your interest with every line?  Short-short fiction allows the language no rest, and every word has to pay its way. Are there regular points of interest in the choice of language and in the concepts introduced by the story? We need to know at all times that the story is breathing, the story is alive. That someone who knows what they are doing is in control.  So don't make a zombie story. Make your story alive and real. Avoid worn-out tropes, cliches, stereotypes and previously-loved ideas. Not all call centres are boring, not all environmentalists are good, not all old people are nice, not all council workers are jobsworths, not all artists are worthwhile, and not all chain shops are evil.


5: Can it hear you?


While reading a good story you will have questions. You should have questions. Where is the action happening? Who is talking? Why are they telling me this? And why are they telling me it now? Ask these questions of the story and if it cannot answer, call the nurses.


6: Is the pressure too low?


Sometimes a short-short story is just too low-drain. It demands too little of the reader and of the writer. A pleasant vignette, a neat collection of words that describes a moment with no sense of urgency or jeopardy. If this is the case, class A drugs or adrenalin shots may be required.


7:  Is everything intact?


Count the extremities and check that all essential parts are there. If everything seems to be there, but it feels as though something is missing, that's a good thing.

Good short-short fiction will have a sense that something has been removed, a vital part amputated. The teller of the story knows something that the reader doesn't. We can sense a presence, humming from within the story like a distant generator, haunting us like the pain from a phantom limb.


And that's it. My seven vital signs. Next week I will begin checking for these vital signs in some of your short-short stories, and I'll be choosing some winners.


Good luck everyone.

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