Learning from Hint Fiction

Although Robert Swartwood’s new hint fiction anthology (W.W. Norton, 2010) is a compelling enough reason to write hint fiction, publication is not the only reason to write in this intriguing new genre. Crafting a successful piece of hint fiction is, in itself, an excellent writing exercise. By its very nature, hint fiction demands that its author select each word carefully and understand the pacing and timing inherent in a small collection of sentences.

Swartwood, who coined the term, defines “hint fiction” as a work of 25 words or less that suggests a larger story without telling it outright. Thus, as Swartwood says, a piece of hint fiction implies conflict and its potential outcome but does not have a traditional beginning, middle and end. Under Swartwood’s definition, hint fiction must have a title, which conveniently allows the author to convey more meaning outside the 25-word limit.

The following is an unedited piece of hint fiction. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.


The women in the corner say that they think he looks innocent. I haven’t said anything, because I know how dangerous he really can be.

After editing, the piece reads as follows:


The woman in purple says, “He’s innocent. His eyes look innocent.” I don’t say anything, because I saw him that morning with the knife.

Below is the piece with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

[This story is an effective piece of hint fiction, as it suggests a larger plot without telling it directly. A few changes in word choice can make better use of the 25-word limit and convey the suggested story more pointedly and dramatically.] The women in the cornerwoman in purple [Perhaps one woman would be just as effective as more than one. “In the corner” could normally be an effective descriptor, but with so few words available to convey the storyline, it seems that you could say something that more effectively differentiates the women from the male defendant about whom they are speaking.] says, that they think he looks innocent “He’s innocent. His eyes look innocent. [Dialogue is interesting here, and repeating the word “innocent” emphasizes the woman’s assessment. The repetition also serves to highlight the narrator’s own secret knowledge.] I haven’t said don’t say anything, [The past participle—“haven’t said”—introduces a confusing time element. It isn’t necessary for the narrator to indicate a time different from the one in which the woman is speaking.], because I know what he’s really like saw him that morning with the knife. [In a longer piece, “I know what he’s really like” could introduce a more in detailed discussion of the defendant’s true nature. However, this very short piece benefits from more precision.]

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.

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4 Responses to “Learning from Hint Fiction”

  1. You’ve done an excellent job with the edited version. I find hint fiction fascinating, and I’ve been having fun working on them. It is like a puzzle, and as you’ve described, the word choice is extremely important. It is definitely a challenge, but so worthwhile. I think it’s a great writing exercise, too.

    Kathy Ryan

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for your comment. Hint fiction also seems like it might be helpful for authors trying to craft concise pitches for books they hope to publish. Editors always like one-sentence plot or thesis summaries that an author can present on a short elevator ride or during a brief meeting at a writers’ conference. Thinking of hint fiction might be helpful in creating interesting, well-crafted short pitches for busy editors with only a moment to listen.


  3. Jackelin says:

    It forces the imagination to expand into different shapes and travel to various places. They may form more than one story in the mind almost like chopped pieces of dreams, eligible for interpretation of inumerable things. I see Hint Fiction as a harsh exercise machine for creativity, thanks Mr. Swartwood.

  4. admin says:

    You’re right, Jackelin. Thanks to Mr. Swartwood for introducing us to this versatile and dreamlike genre.

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