“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
Hemingway considered the six-word masterpiece above one of his best works. When it comes to storytelling, less is sometimes more, particularly in this age of short attention spans, suffused with multi-tab browsing and thoughts packed into 140 characters. 100-word drabbles, 1000-word flash fiction, Wired’s selection of six-word stories and Twitter accounts like @VeryShortStory and @arjunbasu that specialise in crafting tweet-length narratives: Very short fiction is here to stay.
When we decided to focus on very short fiction for The Ayam Curtain, we also decided to do a primer on writing fantastically compressed tales. I don’t claim to be an expert in the matter– I don’t even claim to be halfway decent– but here are some things that I’ve learned reading and writing fiction in that scale.
Words become precious commodities when you only have 1000 (or less) of them to work with. You can’t just slop words on a page. You have to dole them out in measured portions, carefully rationing them to each point you want to express. It’s similar to writing poetry in that respect: You have to be mindful where you put each word. Despite their length, for example, 100-word stories are not something you can just churn out in five or ten minutes, especially if you’re doing it for the very first time.
The shorter the stories get, the less description there will be, and more action. If you look at @VeryShortStory, the stories are all: I did this, he did this, she did that. It’s all very succinct and to the point.
4am. You are asleep. I am awake. I am eating your Easter candy. In the morning, I will pretend we have been robbed.
— Very Short Story (@VeryShortStory) April 8, 2012
Another thing, particularly important when writing speculative fiction: Describing worlds that are different. Don’t be coy about what the difference is – get straight to the point. “Show, don’t tell” the old adage goes, but in such constrained spaces? If you don’t have a way to show precisely what’s different about the world you’ve created in one or two sentences, you sometimes just have to tell. There’s no leeway for obfuscating; you’ll just end up with confused readers.
At the same time, character arcs are difficult at these scales. If you want to write a character-based story, it helps to focus on a single event that is telling of your character.
Monday crept over Jack, killing his mood. The weekend had been great. He’d partied like there was no tomorrow, but unfortunately, there was.
— Very Short Story (@VeryShortStory) April 9, 2012
Although there are no hard and fast rules to these things.
You asked for flowers and I brought flowers. You asked for dancing and I danced. I asked for your love and you gave back the flowers.
— Very Short Story (@VeryShortStory) April 10, 2012
*Ten years between them could not stop their love. Inseparable from day one, they ate, played, slept in the sun together. He quickly outgrew her in size, but never in heart.
Her left eye went first, claimed by cataracts; by the time he was four she was blind. He brought warm towels to her in winter; she never stopped showing him affection.
But when spring came round she stopped eating, and one day they took her away to the pound in a basket. He sat by the window, waiting and waiting for her to come back, but she never did.*
Creating sweeping visions of new worlds might be difficult given the word count. What I’ve found helps is to focus on single characters and how the changes you’ve made in your world affect their life.
*The applicant is as well spoken as she is dressed and qualified. She’s perfect for the job. But the way she speaks bothers him.
Decades ago he worked on a government project, cheap digital dictionaries for slum kids, teaching them how to read and speak properly. They sprinkled vocal tics into the computer voice, random strange vowel inflections.
The way she pronounced ‘elite’ was one of his, thought up on a sudden whim.
When she leaves he puts the red mark on her dossier and adds “Unsuitable For Position”. After all, he’s seen where those kids come from, and how could he trust anyone like that?*
That’s not to say that you can’t write a great 100-word story that’s all Wikipedia article. It just has to be handled with care. (But then again, doesn’t all writing?)
This post is the first of a series planned in conjunction with our open call for The Ayam Curtain. More posts to come from co-editor Joyce Chng, as well as anchor contributors Dave Chua and Judith Huang.