Why we love stories in 500 words or less

Just 134 words describe the most famous catch in history.....

Just 134 words describe the most famous catch in history.....

         One of the best-known passages from contemporary American literature is the description of Catch 22 that serves as the guiding premise of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel of the same name. Heller articulated the absurdity of Catch 22 and the entire enterprise of war in just 134 words:

"You mean there's a catch?"

"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

        Many memorable passages from literature, history and even religion are accomplished with a remarkable economy of words.  Some Examples:

        Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was only 272 words long, which invites discouraging comparisons to many of today’s political orations. And the tragedy of the Civil War officially came to a close with Robert E. Lee signing the Confederacy’s 107-word Surrender at Appomattox.

       While the U.S. Constitution, complete with original signatures and its 27 Amendments, is 7,591 words long, the preamble is expressed in a trim 52 words. Here they are:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

        What’s more, the Bill of Rights, that most sacred expression of our rights that people of all political stripes like to brandish, is only 482 words long. Look up all ten of them and count for yourself.  

        The U.S. Declaration of War on the Imperial Government of Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 was expressed in only 166 words. Nearly four years later, in September, 1945, the Instrument of Surrender signed by the Allied Forces and Japanese aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, ending World War II in the Pacific, was 344 words long (OK, 504 if you count names and signatures).

Goodnight Moon, an entire book in 134 of the loveliest words ever written.

Goodnight Moon, an entire book in 134 of the loveliest words ever written.

        On a less bellicose note, Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 children’s classic, was only 132 words long. Although she didn’t have children herself, she obviously knew something about their attention spans. Enough, anyway, that Goodnight Moon has sold more than 48 million copies to date, and  continues to sell some 800,000 copies every year.

        The great dream of many writers is to complete a novel. That requires months, even years, of lonely, painstaking attention to 70,000 words or more: plot, character development, dialog, point of view, and all the rest. But there’s much to be said for compressing that same passion into the bright intensity of a 500-word story.

        A bromide that's well known among writers is attributed to a variety of sources including Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, but was probably first written by 17th Century philosopher Blaise Pascal. It’s typically stated like this, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

       Two final examples to illustrate our point:

       The President of the United States assumes the mantle of leadership by reciting an Oath of Office that’s only 37 words long. And anyone who wishes to pray for him probably has at least a passing familiarity with the 52-word-long Lord’s Prayer.