BY DANIELLE ACKLEY-MCPHAIL
How many words does it take to tell a story? Can’t really answer that, can we? Or at least, not easily… There are too many variables; too many considerations. Is it a short story? A long one? Complex, or a simple one? What do you want to tell? What do you want to simply imply?
Who can say, really? A haiku can convey a story in seventeen syllables; Tolstoy required thousands of pages. Most of us are fortunate, we can answer the original question as simply as this: It takes as many words as it takes.
But then, who wants to be simple, anyway? In this world of done and redone and overdone, we want a challenge, don’t we? Such websites as New Times - San Luis Obispo and AOL’s Amazing Instant Novelist—and who knows how many others—offer up that challenge every day: write a complete and compelling story in <however many words strikes the sponsor site’s fancy> and no more. Usually they are generous, allowing a few hundred, at least. A challenge, but a relatively simple one.
Not so with New Times – San Luis Obispo. Are you ready for this? Maybe you better sit down…55 words a story, nothing more!
Can’t be done, you say? Well, there’s the challenge, and the guidelines are very specific as to what constitutes a story: one or more characters, a setting, a conflict, and a resolution. It ain’t easy (ooh! I can hear my grade school English teacher screeching from her grave, now!), but it can be done, as I will show you below. With the permission of my illustrious…anonymous partner in crime—let’s just call him IrateIndigoSimian, why don’t we?—I’d like to give you an example of the same 55-word story from a couple of different approaches:
He had always loved her, ever since the first time he had laid eyes on her he had known she was the only one. He kissed her sleeping forehead gently and considered her betrayal.
The recoil from the gun surprised him, the finality of it all didn't. Then he turned the gun towards himself next.
Simple…straightforward…uncomplicated. Nothing wrong with that. By the contest guidelines, this definitely works, but does it work well? Think about it, the author made use of all of his 55 words, “had” was used three times, “her” was used four times, and “he” was used five times; those three words make up more than twenty percent of the author’s allotment. Ouch! Yeah, it works, but the impact the subject matter could have is diminished by the frivolous use of throw-away words. (don’t feel I’m being too harsh with IrateIndigoSimian, this was a first draft. We already hashed all of this out and he agrees.) Now, lets look at a later version of the story:
Their love had been the thing keeping him alive for years now. Her betrayal severed their bond, his soul, his mind. His final kiss left a soft, warm ghost touch on her sleeping forehead. The recoil from the gun surprised him, the finality of it all didn't. Then he turned the gun towards himself next.
Not bad, this version has a decidedly different feel, putting everything out in the reader’s face from the very beginning. You are immediately confronted with the character’s betrayal and anger, and the ending is logical progression, without surprise. This accomplishes something very different from the first draft, and as for economy, not one word, other than articles, appears more than twice. This is an honest, straightforward rendition of this piece, but for my own tastes, a little too much in your face, not subtle enough.
Now for a bit more subtlety: The next one is more ambiguous. Other than the main character’s love, we aren’t sure how this is going until the fourth line. With the emotions drawn on, the fondness that is admitted, the second paragraph is a shocker:
He found he couldn't remember a time he hadn't loved her. Even now, his soul was entwined with hers. Her sleep was deceptively peaceful. He gently kissed her cool forehead and contemplated her betrayal. The recoil from the gun surprised him, the finality of it all didn't. Then he turned the gun towards himself next.
And the last is on a similar vein, with the betrayal hinted at in the third line, but not revealed until the fourth. This draws the reader in, hooks them, has them guessing. The words chosen have an emotional impact all their own; you feel his love, then his betrayal...and finally, your own shock:
There was never a time he hadn't loved her. Even now, his soul was entwined with hers. She slept so sweetly...innocently...deceptively so. He gently kissed her cool forehead and contemplated her betrayal. The recoil from the gun surprised him, the finality of it all didn't. Then he turned the gun towards himself next.
With all fiction, and most decidedly in micro fiction, you have to choose carefully. Think of the emotional investment of the words you put to the page... for example, in the last line of the first paragraph, the first version has the main character “considered” the woman’s betrayal, in subsequent versions it was changed to “contemplated”...Considered is an everyday word, an ordinary word. Contemplated is more involved, more impact.
It is cliché, but no matter what the length of your prospective work one needs to go for quality, not quantity, but most especially with something like this, where you only have so many words to use...each one has to score.
Words should have purpose, a goal, all of them used to good effect. Unless it is for a reason, never use more words than you have to; your work can drown in a profusion of “highfalutin” words, as my Daddy likes to tell me. Use a fancy word because it lends something, because it enriches the beauty of your poetry or prose; by the same token, do not be afraid to us a simple “workaday” word, if it suits your purposes. Simply put, use a word because it does what you need it to do, not because it is delightfully pretentious.
And finally, because it bears repeating over an over—ironically enough—when you are writing and rewriting your work, no matter the length, always keep close watch, guarding against our natural impulses to repeatedly use the same familiar words, even if we have used them three times already on the same page. Many word processors (if not all) have a Thesaurus option, my greatest advice to you: use it.
Note: This column originally written for the monthly column, If We'd Words Enough and Time, which ran on the defunct site www.fictionauts.com.
For more wisdom on writing, please visit the blog of my friend and co-editor, L. Jagi Lamplighter at http://arhyalon.livejournal.com.
Today's Question: Can you write me a story in 55 words or less? Come on, I know you can! Share! Share!
Here's a recent attempt of my own, written for a 25-word story collection. It wasn't submitted because I could only send in two.