All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Short Stories - Like Really Short

In one of the writing workshops I attend, we had quite the challenge: Write a short story of no more than 200 words. This task comes involves a whole laundry list of obligations - no long descriptions, mood-setting has to be efficient, dialogue must be high-impact, no purple prose, etc. However, the most important part was that it had to be a story. It is easy to write a character in 200 words, but a story is something more. A story covers an event, a development, and preferably some kind of attention-grabbing shift. That's where it gets tricky. That's where the fun begins.

Hemingway is famously (though questionably) given credit for a short story that was six words long: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." Whether or not he wrote it, it presents the most stripped-down version of a story. It introduces a situation, then shifts our expectations with the presentation or assumption of an event. This is the haiku of short stories - very much to the point and with virtually no excess. I would never hold anyone to meeting this standard of storytelling - rather, I think 200 words is a good goal to aim for. The secret is making sure it's a story.

In keeping with the spirit of Hemingway or whoever wrote the baby shoes story, I will offer a few story frameworks presented along the theme of the minimalist ideation. However, so it does not appear that I am copying this method, I will present them in the form of five-word story ideas. These do not have the elegance or complexity of our example story, but the point should still be there.

"I arrived; I left changed.": This is the transformative story, the foundation for most stories. Our character enters a situation with a set of expectations, and is shown or arrives at a different outcome. These stories are attractive because they appeal to what we have all (hopefully) experienced at some point - life prompts us to change our mind and grow. Technically, the character doesn't have to accept the change, but the story hooks around a revealing experience that engages the reader. It can be a complex, philosophical revelation or it can be trying Coke instead of Pepsi - the point is the development of the event.

"That wasn't what I expected.": Ever watch the series The Twilight Zone? (If not, please do - it's on Netflix) Plenty of their stories hinge around creating an awkward environment that plays against our sense of what we believe to be normal, then reveals itself to be quite different. A simple story could be of a person approaching the gallows as the crowd prepares for an execution. The person contemplates death and the bigger questions of existence while walking up the steps, perhaps engaging the reader in the questions around capital punishment, then we find out at the end that the person is the executioner, not the condemned person. The unexpected turn is the payoff for the whole story, and it can be as brief or as long as the writer wishes.

"It could happen to you.": The simplest story has an approachable, familiar texture, and the ones that seem to have traction with us are the very simple, intimate events that the reader quickly relates to. Remembering a first kiss, a death in the family, that one embarrassing moment in school, and so on. These stories can fit in with the other ideas, but the simple retelling of a fundamentally basic story can win over readers simply because they can relate.

If you are feeling in the mood, try writing a simple, 200-word story based on these ideas. Edit and trim the fat where necessary, but see what happens. More importantly, see what ideas come to mind in creating a simple story. 

But don't take the idea about the executioner - that one's mine.  


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