The Arc off the Page

3623301384_230d5d2db7My fascination with micro-fiction began as a writing assignment: Compose a story in less than sixty words. The point of the exercise, of course, was to get to the point. Beginnings are a tricky business, and this particular exercise was designed to get us to start at the heart. But the challenge extends beyond the beginning. Really, it is the end that makes the difference.

There are two strategies to micro-fiction: 1) Eliminate every adjective and adverb. Write in short, sporadic sentences. Keep them simple and declarative (i.e. John went to the store. He wanted milk. They were out. He burned down the store). Or 2) keep the adjectives, keep the adverbs, and let the story breathe and live off the page.

When we talk about story, we talk about arc. You may call it “plot,” or a “plot diagram,” but the simple idea remains: a story is composed of a central conflict. Usually, we have a beginning, middle, and end. Beginning: set up the problem. Middle: complicate the problem. Ending: resolve the problem.

But who says we have to resolve the conflict? Who says we have to set it up. For me, the real key to micro-fiction is to out-think it. It’s not prose, it’s poetry minus the line breaks. Think of the haiku, a three line poem of seventeen total syllables. Seems rather restrictive, don’t you think? But what do the best poets do? They use the form to focus on a single image, to describe it masterfully and with devastating clarity. Ideally, they are as beautiful as a fist–fast and impactful. They both leave an impression that lingers long after the reader has put the paper down (or navigated away from the site, as the case may be).

In my first example, “Frustration,” I aimed to do this with a question and a ton of imagery. I wanted to leave the reader with a picture of a child with a tree growing from their mouth. They may not remember each word of the selection, but they will remember the picture. But is that story? The story, for me, comes in the first setence: “I ate the seeds and the dirt on a dare.” A dare indicates other characters, though they never appear in the work. A dare indicates tension, conflict. That conflict is further complicated by the growing of the tree in the stomach. The resolution, if one would call it that, is a question: “How was I to know …” We’re left with the feeling that the dare has gone horribly wrong. In that way, though its not stated plainly, the arc of the story is clear, but is left for the reader to fill in.

The resolution (or lack thereof) is what exists off the page for the reader.

Go on, give it a shot. You know you want to try!

1 Comment on The Arc off the Page

  1. Hi Aaron! It’s Jenn from Dodie’s workshop (AKA your seatmate partner in M&M-munching and smart-assery …)

    I thought of you (and this assignment) yesterday when I saw a call for “Hint Fiction” (stories of 25 words or less, specifically lacking a defining arc — more suggestion than story, really) for an anthology to be published by Norton in 2010. Lemme know if you want the link — the deadline is 8/31.

    And congrats on being officially MFA’ed!

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