How many words does it really take to tell a story?
Microfiction’s amazing punch
Welcome to Story Cauldron, where I investigate what constitutes a story, where stories can be found, what makes a good story, and why we, as human beings, seem to crave “Story” and constantly find new ways to bring it into our lives.
If I were to ask you what was the last story you read, odds are, you would probably name a novel. Maybe you would think of a short story. But I bet it wouldn’t even dawn on you to mention a piece of microfiction.
And yet—for most of us, the last story we read was probably something really short— microfiction. It’s pervasive, and yet we almost never notice it.
Classifications of fiction based on length
To oversimplify things, let’s break down fiction as follows:
Novel series: 150K+ words spread out over multiple novels
Novels: books typically 50K - 150K words
Novellas: 10K - 40K words
Short stories: 1000-10K words, with most being between 2500-7000 words
Flash fiction: anything under 1000 words, with some publications restricting flash to under 750 or even 500 words
And I think we’d probably agree that all of the above would constitute a Story, right?
For microfiction, we’re talking about a miniscule number of words compared to all of the other story formats. Most people put an upper cap on microfiction at 100 words.
For a quick visualization, this section (not including this sentence) is 101 words.
Why does microfiction exist?
Microfiction packs a lot of story into a very tight economy of words. In good microfiction, every word is ‘sacred’ and has a lot of work to do.
So what’s the point? Why would anyone try to tell a story in 100 words? Is that even enough words to tell a story in the first place?
Let me let you in on a secret: microfiction can be a challenge to write, but it’s also incredibly common. Human beings are built to tell stories, and we will use any format and any length necessary to make it happen.
Let’s look at some examples of microfiction we encounter all the time.
Social media posts
We’ve all seen stories on Facebook, Twitter, and other places. Sometimes they are actually fictional tales that someone has written specifically for the platform.
One of my favorites is Tiny Fairy Tales on Twitter and Instagram. There you will find gems like these:
And Tansy Undercrypt, who over on Facebook offers up delicate little tales of whimsy that are often also laced with poisonous humor or horror. The following is a smidge over 200 words, but you get the point:
Other times they recount something that happened to us. Here’s a particularly good example from my friend Steve:
I’ve already begun my exploration of stories that play out in songs, such as “Copacabana (At the Copa)” and “MacArthur Park.” Music has been a way to tell stories in miniature since people started singing, and it was raised to an art form in the 20th century with the advent of audio recordings and radio.
The next time you’re listening to music on SiriusXM or Spotify, pay close attention to the lyrics and see if you discover a new story you never realized was there.
Graffiti and other ephemeral forms
You might run into microfiction on flyers, find it scribbled on matchbooks or napkins, or even scrawled across a bathroom wall.
Graffiti? Yep, we’ve all seen it. When it’s in a bathroom, the graffiti even has a technical term: “Latrinalia.”
Here’s an example:
What would Jesus do?
He wouldn’t vandalize
Of course, there could be a lot more to the story than that, but it’s a good start and might get you thinking.
A lot has already been written about graffiti and the stories behind it—entire books, in fact. Here’s an interesting little article by Julian Stodd about the different kinds of stories that you can experience when you encounter graffiti.
Aha! Here’s where some of the best microfiction hangs out today. We see stories play out all the time in television and radio ads.
Perhaps you remember this guy:
And if you haven’t seen the Danish Road Safety Council ad promoting helmet wearing—with Vikings, you really need to take a moment to watch it.
For a few others, former Pixar writer Matthew Luhn reflects on some of his favorite stories within ads.
Why do I include these here? They are quick stories that if you were to write them down would take very few words, but in the small space they occupy, they are loaded with setting and character and sometimes even conflict and resolution, and when you watch them, you pick up on all of this content in seconds. They may not technically qualify as microfiction because they have a script behind them, but the concept is the same—a story in moments.
Beyond the intentional and accidental microfiction noted above, lots of people actually write tiny stories for contests and publication all the time.
For example, there’s a recurring competition called NYC Midnight. Depending on the contest, you might write a short story (2500 words), flash fiction (up to 750 words), or a 100-word microfiction story. For each round, they assign you a genre, a word, and an action.
This was my latest effort, a microfiction story using the word “import” (you can use any word that includes the required one), the action of measuring something, and the action/adventure genre.
Why does microfiction work?
It probably seems incredible that you can tell an entire story in so few words. How can you have a plot, character development, conflict, and resolution in only a few words?
It all depends on how you define the concept of “Story,” doesn’t it?
Many people might argue that to have a story, you need characters, setting, and a plot (with conflict and resolution). Others would say you also have to have a theme or a purpose (to entertain, inspire, etc.)
But do you have to have all of these? Or is Story something else? As Ursula K. LeGuin once said,
What makes a story is — you want to 'find out what happens next'.
And I would argue that Story is something that takes you somewhere, even for a moment. You’re transported to a world that isn’t your own. You fit yourself into someone else’s body, see the world through their eyes. Or you feel an emotion—you laugh, you cry, you experience wonder or curiosity.
So if those are our criteria, then can’t you do all of that in 100 words? Indeed, can’t you do it in a sentence?
As an example, let’s look at a couple of tweets from Six Word Stories:
It may be a matter of opinion, but I consider these to be stories. Not fully fleshed out ones as you would encounter in a feature-length film, but they evoke an emotion, make me curious, and my brain spins a number of possibilities for how the story might play out.
So what do you think? Have I opened your eyes (and your mind and heart) to the idea that Story might live in places you least expect to find it?
I’d love to know what you think, and if you have other examples to share. Please drop me a note in the comments!
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