The Essentials of Micro-Fiction
Micro Fiction, by nature, is defiant. It defies length, boundaries, and expectations. But tight, provocative fiction requires analysis and editing. Taking an idea and distilling it into a “micro”- cosm of its original self is challenging. So what are the essentials of Micro Fiction?
- Length and form obviously matter. The average micro fiction will be less than 400 words, with some exceptions that reach as much as 750 words. The form is strictly prose. If the novel writer is the carpenter who structures a whole house, and a short story writer is the decorator of one of its rooms, then the micro fiction writer is the mailman who looks into the box before dropping in the household’s letters. Readers discover something brief and intimate in a very short space.This is the only point that stands alone for micro fiction. The following six points are made to declare the specific differences and similarities micro fiction has with short stories and poetry.
- Be willing to edit and re-edit: Take a story of mine, for example. Here’s what our Poetry Editor, Anne Doolittle did to a draft of my “A Carpenter’s Wife.” [Click Here]Remember: You must have the guts to take criticism, but don’t unnecessarily burn yourself. Make sure it’s from the right people. Anne’s a very sharp editor and writer, so she’s a great person to have critique my work.
- Soul-stirring Language: Choose your words carefully. You’re using so few. Here’s a prose poem from Charles Simic’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection, The World Doesn’t End.
The stone is a mirror which works poorly. Nothing in it but dimness. Your dimness or its dimness, who’s to say? In the hush your heart sounds like a black cricket.
- Imagery: Here’s the second paragraph of Francine Prose’s “Pumpkins”:
Actually, she is beheaded, her body thrown from the car and decapitated with such force that the head sails through the air and lands in a pile of pumpkins spilled out onto the road.
In such a short space some thread must hold the story together. A recurring image can always do this. By the end, the holiday season plays a primary role in the lives of the characters and the story. Don’t you want to keep reading?
- Make it tight: Use a minimum of words. Amy Hempel’s story “Housewife” is a prime example:
She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, “French film, French film.”
(yes, this is Hempel’s story in its entirety)
What was Hempel’s original idea? Was the woman on a train or in a taxi going back and forth between lovers? Did she have lunch or buy a paper? Did she almost get caught by her husband? Did she go to a film festival with her lover and see Purple Moon? We don’t need all these answers for the story to work. In fact, getting the reader to ask a few unanswered questions can be a part of a story’s resonance (see #7).
- Play against expectations. Let the narrator tell the reader one thing, lead him in one direction while the text leads the reader in just the opposite. A Hyper Fiction Contest on NPR included this example. For a moment the reader may think it ends too soon:
The World’s Shortest Horror Story: The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.
(author unknown to me)
- Implication: The key requirement of a literary short-short is implication. There’s no room for life stories. Just enough for resonance. An instructor once (correctly) labeled a piece of mine a situation not a story. You never want that said. Here’s a list, by no means exhaustive, of how to create stories:
- Use a directive last sentence that gives narrative insight or opinion. Thomas Bernhard does this with nearly every story in his recent Micro-Fiction collection, The Voice Imitator. He uses closing sentences like, “In this way Fourati, as is well known, had ruined not only the lady’s life but his own as well.” Or, “He asked us what he should do to be freed from his guilty conscience, but we dared not give him any advice.”
- Make rereads necessary or at least inviting. In “Three,” Gordon Lish tells us three stories. He prefaces them with the statement, “One of them taught me the meaning of fear,” but doesn’t say which one. In the first story he talks to a woman who enjoys the funeral of her lover. In the second he sees a headless baritone on the subway that sings to him. The last simply reads: “The third thing was I went home.” What is it he said in that first paragraph again?
- Close with a phrase that sends the reader back into the story. Then it might sink into the reader’s own life. In Molly Giles, “The Poet’s Husband,” she writes, “…but later that night when she is asleep, he will lie in their bed and stare at the moon through a spot on the glass that she missed.” Wow. What did she miss? We don’t know, but within eighteen lines, just one sentence long, we’re stirred to think about the loved ones of all the writers we know. How do they feel about the ways and places that our fiction intersects with their lives?
- Know when you’ve made your point. In Grace Paley’s “Mother,” the last paragraph reads, “And then she died.” Paley can end this way because she has summed up the distinctive character of her mother and made us miss our equally distinct mothers standing in doorways at night abrading us with, “You run around senselessly. What will become of you?” Mission accomplished.
Francine Prose’s “Pumpkins” was first published in Western Humanities Review, Autumn, 1989.
Amy Hempel’s “Housewife” was first published in Micro-Fiction.
Molly Giles’ “The Poet’s Husband” was first published in Micro-Fiction.
Grace Paley’s “Mother” was first published in Later the Same Day.