The Art of Microfiction

As Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Which translated into modern language means, “Everyone should write and read microfiction.”

What is Microfiction?

It’s a subset of flash fiction—those super short stories typically told in 1,000 words or less. Definitions vary, but for the most part, microfiction is any story told in 300 words or less, and could even be as short as a few words. (At Microfiction Monday Magazine, I use the limit of 100 words.)

Microfiction authors include Amy Hempel, Ernest Hemingway, Steve Almond, Stephen Graham Jones, and Lydia Davis among many others. One need only Google to find microfiction on the internet, but here is a quick example from my own closet-full-o-stories, 99 words in total:

Eclipse

He told me small objects would float if tossed in the air during a lunar eclipse. I knew he was wrong, but I filled a hundred water balloons so we could juggle them in the dark and pretend they were made to hover by some magic. And when they actually did as the moon turned blood red, he revealed himself to be a magician and popped them all with his fingertips, making it rain.
“My skin is armor,” I told him. “Paper thin, but it can repel arrows.”
“Run fast,” he said. “I’m going to see if that’s true.”

Why Microfiction?

For the reader:

Microfiction’s appeal to the modern reader is not surprising when considering the average adult’s attention span isn’t much longer than the time it takes to click a mouse or tap a touch screen, right?

Don’t write bad microfiction. It’s far too easy to make a whole lot of it and the world will crumble under the weight of it all.

It’s possible this is true, but more than convenience, a reader likes a good story. Good stories come in all shapes and sizes—all lengths and forms. If a novel can be thought of as a ten course meal, and a short story as an excellent deli-sandwich. A microfiction piece might be an exquisite chocolate truffle. All are food. All are enjoyable. But they’re each very different. Microfiction is a scrumptious, bite-sized nugget of a story. It packs big flavor and satisfaction into a small package.

For the writer:

As a writer, microfiction forces you to really look at your prose and determine what’s essential and what isn’t; what’s redundant and what isn’t. Honing these skills on microfiction can make your short story and novel-length prose that much sharper, but it’s also an art form of its own—a different medium for expression—as different from shorts stories as short stories are from novels. It’s fun to explore different story-telling media, and some writers find that microfiction is their medium of choice.

Tips for Writing Microfiction:

The real key to microfiction is efficiency of text. You don’t need to tell less of a story, and you don’t need to summarize the story. You need to make careful word and phrase choices that are able to paint vivid pictures and imply more than their brevity would suggest. “Show, don’t tell” most certainly still applies. Beyond that, consider all the features that tend to make any story good—characterization, plot, conflict, setting and atmosphere—if you want a reader to engage with the piece, there should be a hook, and some sense that something important happens. This is no small feat to perform in so few words, but it can be done. Cick here for an excellent example of Lydia Davis’s process. 

Markets for Microfiction:

There are numerous markets for microfiction, and Jim Harrington at Every Day Fiction has an excellent list of micro and flash markets. Just scroll down to find those accepting shorter word counts.

Final tip:

Writing bad microfiction can be done very quickly. I mean, how long does it take to write a few sentences? Don’t write bad microfiction. It’s far too easy to make a whole lot of it and the world will crumble under the weight of it all. Don’t be the asshole who triggers the apocalypse. Take your time and write something people might actually want to read.

Gayle Towell

Column by Gayle Towell

Gayle Towell’s stories have won the 2013 Women’s National Book Association writing contest, the 2014 Willamette Writers Kay Snow fiction award, and have been published in Menacing Hedge, Pif Magazine, and the Burnt Tongues anthology among other places. Her novella Blood Gravity was released through Blue Skirt Productions in September 2014. Gayle is the founding editor of Microfiction Monday Magazine and cofounder of Blue Skirt Productions, an artists’ collective. For more information, visit gayletowell.com.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

CSolunar24's picture
CSolunar24 from Chicago is reading Mere Christianity July 24, 2014 - 11:05am

Loved that micro !

Olivia Marcus's picture
Olivia Marcus from Chicago, IL is reading "Twenties Girl" by Sophie Kinsella July 28, 2014 - 2:10am

How is a novel of around 67,000 words? That's how long mine is, but I have the feeling it's too short.

Gayle Towell's picture
Gayle Towell from North Plains, Oregon July 28, 2014 - 7:54am

Thanks, CSolunar24!

Olivia--I wonder if you meant this comment to go with another post? This one is about microfiction. But I can tell you that 67,000 words isn't too terribly short for a novel. Some places might want it longer (75,000-100,000), but there are plenty of markets for novels of that length. I have one myself (unsold) that comes in just under 60,000, and that one might have issues due to length, but I've been told anything over 50,000 falls into "novel" territory and can find a home somewhere.

Chris Robideaux's picture
Chris Robideaux November 2, 2014 - 10:34pm

@ Olivia Marcus: My novel is 78,000 words and 245 pp., so yours would be approx. 210 - still a good novel length. But, it's not the length, but the story contained therein, which is the whole ethos of micro/flash fiction. Cheers. http://phoenicianbard.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/an-assortment-of-my-recen...