By Christine Hanolsy
Charles Dickens was paid by the word, and it shows. But wordiness doesn’t always equal effectiveness—you can tell a great story without forcing the reader to slog through a whole bunch of extra text and without losing the story’s essence or voice.
During my years as Microprose Editor at the online writing community YeahWrite, I had the opportunity to read (and write) a lot of microfiction. Like, a lot a lot. It’s one of my favorite forms, and it’s deceptively difficult to do it well. If you’re looking to give it a try, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Let’s start at the beginning: what exactly is “microfiction”?
Generally, microfiction is defined as a very short story that contains the classic story elements, including protagonist, conflict, and resolution. How short is “very short”? Well, most people have heard the famous six-word story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Six words is pretty extreme, but really anything over about 300 words is pushing the limits of “micro” and taking you into “flash fiction” territory. (Note: most of what you’re about to read can be applied to flash as well!)
The thing to remember about microfiction is that with such limited space you can’t spell everything out for your reader. You’ll need to rely on hints, clues and other indirect means to get your point across and create a complete and compelling story. We don’t see the protagonist, conflict, or resolution in the six-word story, but we can infer them.
Words: choose them wisely
It sounds simple, but choosing exactly the right words is the most important thing you can do. This is how you whittle a sentence down from eight words to five. With the right word choices you reduce your word count and increase the impact of your tiny piece all at once.
A few tips for maximizing your story while minimizing word count:
- Look for verbs that include an understanding of how something is done. This eliminates the need for excess adverbs. Try “tiptoed” or “shuffled” instead of “walked softly,” for example.
- Consider your verb tenses. Do you really need to use that present participle (-ing)? Are you sure passive voice is the way to go? Here’s what I mean:
- A fire was sparked while I was dreaming. [8 words]
- A fire sparked while I dreamed. [6 words]
- I dreamed; a fire sparked. [5 words]
- Use your thesaurus, but don’t assume that all the listed words are exact synonyms. Make sure the word you choose has exactly the connotation you want. “Tiptoed” and “shuffled,” for example, both mean “to walk softly,” but they lend different perspectives to the action.
- If you’re not careful, you’re liable to sound like a student prepping for exams. There are plenty of simple, precise words out there that are in your—and your readers’—ordinary vocabulary, so don’t go reaching for that five-dollar word unless it’s really the right one. Take, for example, “whisper” vs “susurrus.” Susurrus is a fantastic word with great onomatopoeia, but it’s not used to describe a single voice.
Allusions: get a clue, give a clue
An allusion is a reference to an object or circumstance outside of the piece you are writing that provides context. This literary device is an efficient way to lead your readers where you want them to go. Start with a story about a girl and her stepmother. Drop in a glass slipper, and your reader sees Cinderella. Mention a mirror instead and you’ve got Snow White. You don’t need to waste words describing the setting or characters; most readers can make those connections.
One caveat: if your allusion is too obscure (or culture-specific), you may lose your reader. This is especially true with pop culture references. What’s common knowledge where you come from may be completely unheard of in my hometown, and vice versa.
Titles: underutilized real estate
If you don’t use your title well, you’re missing out on a chance to influence your reader. I am not suggesting you use your title to sneak in extra words—that’s a sly trick, and a cheap one. On the other hand, you can use your title to set the stage for your story, slip in a bit of extra context, or even change the meaning of your piece altogether. Hint: it’s a great place to put that allusion.
Finally: don’t cut corners
You’re three words away from making word count. What do you do? I’ll tell you what you don’t do: you don’t drop articles (a, an, the). It seems like an easy way to slim your story down, and sometimes it works as a style choice, but most of the time it looks like you missed something in editing. Micros are short, but they are still prose. Respect your reader. Do the hard work to make your stories worth reading.
Practice, practice, practice
If the idea of writing a complete story in so few words is a little intimidating, try this: take your favorite short story, fairy tale, or personal blog post and cut it down to size. What are the most important elements of the story? Which ones will you focus on? What will you leave for the reader to figure out? Or: start from scratch using your Story Engine deck!
Christine Hanolsy is a science fiction and fantasy writer who hopes to one day live up to her kids’ expectations. She currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the online writing community YeahWrite; past roles have included Russian language scholar, composer, interpreter, and general cat herder. She lives with her family in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and you can find her online at christinehanolsy.com.