As the weekend approaches it’s the perfect time to grab pen and paper, computer and keyboard, blood and guts, and arrange your words into a work of art. And maybe that work of art will be rendered in 100 words or fewer.
Telling such a short story is no easy task. Good story telling has conflict, characterization, is vivid, and makes you feel something. It isn’t about telling less of a story or including fewer details, but about efficiency of text. It’s about picking the details that imply a whole lot more than their brevity would suggest.
Consider the following examples from this week’s microfiction stories. In “Romania 1989” by Angela Maracle, we have the line:
“No good, he is Gypsy”
Just five words. But the way the dialogue is phrased gives us the speaker’s accent and tell us about cultural ideals.
In “Darla’s Notebook” by Bob Thurber we have the line:
Another told the story of Red Riding Hood being raped not by the wolf but the woodcutter
In seventeen words we not only get the reveal of what happened, but by using Red Riding Hood we get a characterization of the people involved. The girl is young and innocent; the person who hurt her should have been a protector.
As an exercise (one that I highly recommend to other writers since it forces you to really focus on what parts of your story are fundamental), I’ve taken a passage from the beginning of a novella I’m presently working on and whittled it down from 626 words to a mere 100, all while trying to preserve the story content and impact. Here are those first 626 words in their present form (feel free to skim):
The sound of the door opening late at night, even when done slowly and carefully, has always been enough to wake me from even the deepest sleep, flooding my nervous system with adrenaline and making my heart beat up in my throat. It’s got to be well past midnight. I’m home from college for the weekend, in my old bed in my old room. A sliver of light enters the room as the door cracks open, but there’s no tall, dark shadow like I’m expecting, and the footsteps are too light.
Soon there’s a whisper. “Jake?”
It’s Benny, my five-year-old brother. The tightness in my chest eases and I say, “What are you doing out of bed?”
“Mom wouldn’t let me stay up and say hi.”
“I got in way past your bed time,” I say.
He folds his arms on the bed and rests his chin there, staring at me in the dark, his bed-messed brown hair backlit by the hall light.
“Everything okay?” I say. “You didn’t have a nightmare, did you?”
He moves his face closer and whispers, “I had a accident.”
“I didn’t even drink any water. I don’t know how it happened.”
I sit up, leaving the warm comfort of my blankets for the cold house. Dad always turns the thermostat too low at night. I sigh and rub my face.
“Are you mad?” Ben whispers.
“No, I’m not mad.”
“Mom gets mad. Don’t tell her, okay?”
“I won’t,” I say. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
As I follow Ben out of my room in the dark, I stub my toe on one of the dozen boxes scattered around and have to bite my tongue not to curse in front of the kid. Ever since I left for college, Mom started storing all sorts of random crap in here. Old books, clothes, pictures, Christmas decorations. A broken microwave. I’m pretty sure the one I just hit my toe on is filled with tools.
I lead Ben across the hall into the bathroom. In the light I can see the entire front of his green dinosaur pajama bottoms are soaked as he stands on Mom’s pristine linoleum. He holds his hands together in front of his crotch like that might hide it as his freckled face blushes with embarrassment. I grab a folded washcloth out of a drawer and wet it with warm water, add soap, and hand it to him.
“Get the wet clothes off and wipe yourself down,” I say. “I’ll get you some clean ones.”
Then I leave him, go to his room, and step on the sharp head of a plastic dinosaur before I flick the light on. Sharp pain shoots up the arch of my foot and this time I let “fuck” slip out between my teeth. The kid’s room is a mess—dinosaurs, trucks, Legos, and a light saber all over the floor. Mom always makes him clean his room before bed so this must all be from some late night play session because he couldn’t sleep.
I strip his bed and load it all up in the washing machine in the hall closet. I find blue pajama pants and a Superman t-shirt in his dresser and bring them to the bathroom where I find him stripped naked and shivering.
“I’m really cold,” he says.
“These will warm you up.” I set the dry clothes on the lid of the toilet, grab his wet clothes and the washcloth off the floor, add them to the washing machine and start it.
Ben comes back out into the hallway, dressed, arms wrapped around himself, still shivering. “Can I sleep with you?” he asks.
“As long as you promise not to pee on me.”
“I promise,” he says.
And now comes the hatchet. KACCHHHITTTTT, and the following 100 words are left:
Home from college, sleeping, door creaks, small footsteps. Benny, my five-year-old brother whispers, “Jake?” in the dark.
“Nightmare?” I say.
“Please don’t tell Mom.”
Leaving warm blankets for the cold house, I follow him out, stub my toe, wince. Bathroom light illuminates Benny standing on pristine linoleum in soaked pajamas. Hand him a washcloth. “Strip and wipe.”
In his room. “Fuck.” A plastic dinosaur slices my foot. Load his bedding in the wash. Bring fresh pajamas as he shivers.
Getting dressed he says, “Can I sleep with you?”
“Promise not to pee on me?”
It’s a different form of writing and it has a different feel to it for sure. The trick, again, is to keep only the sharpest images—the ones that imply the rest, and get rid of any superfluous words or redundancies.
Here are a few things to consider when crafting microfiction:
- Is there conflict? What will people get out of reading it?
- Is there characterization? Are the characters’ motives clear?
- “Show don’t tell” still applies. Resorting to summary makes it difficult for a reader to connect with a story.
- Vagueness is not a substitute for depth. There should be enough in there that the reader gets the full picture.
Now write, you talented scribes!