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What Is Three Minute Fiction?

By Bethany Keene
Updated May 23, 2024
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Three minute fiction refers to a complete story that can be read out loud in three minutes. Each year, the U.S. public radio station NPR hosts a three minute fiction contest, in which listeners are encouraged to send in their short stories to be read in three minutes. The winners will then be read on the air. This encourages people to hone their writing skills; developing a complete, engaging story that can fit into a short period of time is a difficult task for many people. This is what really helps to make the contest interesting.

The ability to write a good piece of three minute fiction hinges on a few different things. The first is a cohesive idea; the theme or message of the story should be clear from the start. There is no space for extraneous explanation, so it is important for anyone writing this type of story to be able to be concise and say a great deal with few details. The ability to edit one's own work, and keep editing until it is exactly right, is quite important as well. Asking another person to read the piece and point out any areas where improvements could be made might be helpful as well.

Anyone hosting a three minute fiction contest will generally provide some sort of parameters for the stories. These can include the desired themes of the story, required characters, or even a particular setting or time of day. Though these selections may seem arbitrary, if often allows easier comparison of the stories, to allow judges to see how the authors are able to get creative and maximize the opportunities they have to share their ideas. Some contests will not make any of these requirements of the writers, however, and will give them complete freedom to develop their stories.

Of course, it is not necessary to enter a contest in order to write three minute fiction. Some people will write pieces like this, that must stay within a certain number of words, or a certain time limit for reading, simply to practice their skills. Any restrictions that are placed on word count, genre, plot, or any other aspect of the story, forces people to concentrate and focus their work more effectively. For this reason, writing three minute fiction as an exercise can be very beneficial for anyone who wants to become a more concise writer or to improve his or her editing skills.

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Discussion Comments
By everetra — On Jan 25, 2012

@hamje32 - I think I’d like to enter this contest myself. Personally, I think the best way to prepare yourself for winning is to read prior winners.

This is not to duplicate their story ideas, but to get an idea for how they pulled it off. How did they write their descriptions? What was the cadence and rhythm in their short story like? How quickly – and effectively – did they bring about resolution?

Reading the prior winners with these questions in mind would, I think, give me a little edge in figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

By hamje32 — On Jan 24, 2012

The three minute story sounds very much like flash fiction or sudden fiction. The one difference that I can see is that the three minute story focuses on how quickly the story can be read, whereas flash fiction focuses on the number of words, usually under 1,000 words.

It’s possible that a story greater than 1,000 words can be read in under three minutes, I don’t know. Still, I like the idea.

Short fiction is concise fiction and I like concise writing. That’s why I’ve always treasured the writings of authors like Ernest Hemingway, whose descriptions were bare and who focused strictly on dialogue and action.

Perhaps it would behoove prospective contestants to read Hemingway first before entering their short fiction pieces.

By jonrss — On Jan 24, 2012

I have also heard of a one minute fiction contest. The stories have to be pretty short, obviously, but you would be surprised at how much detail people can include.

I remember one guy tried to write a complete history of the Roman empire. He read it really fast and it was incredibly abridged but it sounded good.

By backdraft — On Jan 23, 2012

There have been a few three minute fiction readings on my college campus. Most of them are hosted by the English department or the student literary journal.

The writing can be hit or miss but sometimes it really hits. I remember one story about a mountain climber who is trapped and will surely die that had people on the edge of their seats. Another girl wrote a perfectly formed mystery with a twist ending that fit entirely in three minutes. There is a lot of potential with this kind of story telling. Some people really run with it.

By gravois — On Jan 22, 2012

I have submitted several pieces of three minute fiction to NPR's short fiction contest. Unfortunately, I have never won but it is a fun exercise all the same.

I usually go for some kind of genre experiment. One year I wrote a detective piece, another year it was a horror story and this year I wrote a kind of western. I used to write a lot but I don't really have the time for it anymore. But I have pledged to myself that I will submit a story to this contest as long as they do it so that I never fall out of the habit of writing entirely.

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