“It’s not so much your use of contrast I object
to as much as the fact that this picture scares
the hell out of me.”
THE QUICK, SHARP STROKE: WRITING MICRO FICTION
Edgar Allan Poe is credited with creating the short story. He was the right guy in the right place at the right time. Magazines sprang up like mushrooms in the early 1800s. The growing Middle Class cried for more reading material. Magazines needed fiction shorter than novels for their pages. And the short story was born.
We live in a similar time. With the advent of the Internet and more reading from screens, micro fiction’s popularity is on the rise. What exactly is micro fiction? In the fewest possible words: a very short story. Some say any story up to 500 words, but I’m a purist. 100 little words. No more. The skill it requires is closer to the poet’s finely tuned work than that of the fictioneer. You are as likely to find micro fiction in the Poetry section as the Fiction.
So, is it just a prose poem then? A prose poem is a poem written in sentences, ignoring rhyme and meter. Are they the same? No. A micro story is still a story. A prose poem need not be a story at all. You can use prose to describe the inside of your mouth, or the color of a sunset. It contains no plot, no occurrence.
Can a story that is only 100 words long have a plot? Of course it can. Just a very short one. Much of what happens is condensed or implied but something must happen. The characters may be mere cardstock, the events sketchy, but micro fiction is Fiction. If you want to just describe things, write poetry.
Let’s have an example. Here is “Swimming Pool”, a science fiction tale in only 99 wrds.
The second Terran envoy to the planet Yuggoth was made up of eight males and females, and their teacher, Mr. Rancter. The highly intelligent insect-like Yuggothians made them welcome but the teens were soon bored with the sparse planet.
When Greli Hantun found the swimming pool there was no stopping them. Even Rancter pulled off his own uni-suit and headed for the pool. The cool water splashed over them with a slightly viscous quality. Then the screaming began.
The Yuggothians were hard-pressed to explain why Earth diplomats had gone bathing in one of the communal vats of digestive fluid…
The unwritten part of the story is large: the Yuggothian delegates coming
to Earth in peace, the selection of the students, the trip to Yuggoth in
a spaceship, and a hundred other details. Most importantly, the characterization
is missing. What is Mr. Rancter like? Greli Hantun? What do they look like?
We don’t know. We don’t need to know. The whole point of the story is the
punchline. Micro fiction has more in common with stand-up than it does
with short stories or poetry.
How does the writer condense the whole thing down then? Here are four techniques:
1) Brevity & Sharpness
As you can see from “Swimming Pool” much is left untold. Only the finale
of the story is revealed. The writer must cut, cut, cut until only the
bare bones remain. (He or she also has a responsibility to ask: “Is too
much left out?” If so, then write a longer story.) Use clichés or
archetypes. The characters are teenagers because that age group is most
likely to be bored and incautious. Mr. Rancter is last into the pool because
he is the teacher. We can imagine him as a young man, not so far away in
age from his students. Perhaps he worries about being popular? If so, it
is all implied. To waste a sentence saying any of this will mean the difference
between 99 wrds and 116. Use sharp verbs, the active voice and few adjectives.
Choose your words with a poet’s care.
2) The Small Idea
In the last section I warned against leaving too much out. If the story warrants all that missing description then it’s not a micro piece. What is though, is what I call the small idea. This means looking for ideas or plots that have a single (in my case, usually nasty) point. In “By Tuesday” you can see the simple “what if” idea play out at 98 wrds.
It started with the spots. Mr. Kilner got the first on his back. Within two days his entire body was covered in rosettes. The fur appeared the next morning after a long night’s sleep. The claws and fangs were surprisingly last. By Tuesday, Kilner was a leopard.
He left his house on Sycamore and walked on four silky legs to the big beech tree a block over on Cunningham. He climbed the tree, selecting a low limb that hung out over the sidewalk.
Here came Mrs. Grunhild now, her new antelope horns shining in the noon day sun.
The concept for this story came to me at the local pool. One of the
lifeguards had dyed his hair to look like leopard spots. This set me off
to thinking: “What would a man do if he turned into a leopard? And if one
turns into a leopard, would others turn into different animals?” The idea
is small. It wouldn’t make a good novel. It could be strung out to 500
words, but would gain little. Why did he change into a leopard? Who cares?
It is enough that he did.
3) The Strange Scene
In some stories plot is not so strong. These stories are carried by a strange or powerful moment. In “Ghosts” nothing much happens other than a revelation to the single character. But the 99 words cast a wicked shadow in the reader’s mind.
The ghosts came in the form of turtles, long, deformed creatures that bit with so much strength they chewed through the bathroom door. Vanderwelt hid in his bed sheets but still they came. “What do you want?” he sobbed. Their only answer was to snap loudly.
“You aren’t real,” he whimpered. “You’re old memories, or fears, or guilts.” Snap snap. “I never did anything. Why do you come here? Why?” Snap snap.
The largest of the turtles had reached his bedside. It looked up at
him. It made a strange sound, not unlike the continuous flushing in the
4) Express an Opinion
Didactic fiction is one of the bugbears of the Victorian age. No one likes to read moralizing tales of caution anymore. But in the past, ballads and songs with didactic stories expressed some very useful or powerful stories in 4-6 stanza with choruses. “The Blacksmith” warns young girls to guard their virginity, or “New York Girls” tells sailors what to expect in the streets of the New World. Brief, intense, but with a point, this can be done with micro fiction too. Here is “Nano-Hunk”, some 21st Century moralizing at 96 wrds.
The first wave of nanobytes rearranged McElroy’s metabolism. He could live on cheeseburgers and never need a by-pass. No more love handles.
Then they revived the hair follicles on his head, while killing those on his back and shoulder. No more bald spot, no more body hair.
Lastly, they gave him the body of an Atlas and the face of Hollywood’s latest hunk.
Six months later, McElroy put a gun to his perfect temple and blow his
brains out over the back of the sofa. His suicide note said, simply, “You
couldn’t fix the broken parts.”
A word of caution with the last type of story. Don’t clobber your reader over the head with the message. Don’t just come out and say, “Smoking is bad” or “Drunk driving is wrong”. Remember to show, don’t tell. Even at 100 words this holds true. Stating the moral may have worked for Aesop, but it lacks subtlety. The micro fiction writer must use the poet’s careful wording to achieve his or her effects.
One last piece of advice: remember that all the rules for writing apply
to micro fiction. Reviewing your Elements of Style is always handy. But
the number one rule to remember is: edit. Even if you are under the 100
word limit, can you make the image clearer, brighter? With micro fiction,
you only have that one quick, sharp stroke to tell your tale. Make every
word count, and then count again.