For many writers, the idea of microfiction conjures up memories of elementary school writing exercises. The word “micro” in this context refers to the length of the story, not its importance. Many microfiction writers have had their pieces adapted for film, television, and other media, and many are well-known literary writers. If you’ve been wondering how to write microfiction, let’s take a look at key steps in creating your own.
Microfictions are a natural extension of flash fiction, which are stories that are shorter than most flash fiction pieces.
Microfictions are, like flash fiction, often written in a single sitting fueled by an idea the author received to start writing. These are usually around 100 or fewer words — but again, there’s no exact length, it’s what the author thinks fits the story — often 2,000 or 10,000 at most. It is a priority to show a beginning, a middle, and an end as a story that corresponds to the three-act plot structure. A microfiction will be unusual to the audience, but it should also reveal something universal. The author must also be able to move on surprisingly after writing them.
Brainstorm your micro-story ideas
To narrow down your options, spend some time reading microfiction online. Notice the styles and styles involved, how each piece starts and ends, and how characters and settings are revealed. Try writing a couple of your own micro-stories — maybe a joke or a mystery. Or, try making an observation about something you see every day, like a chair or a vending machine. Write it as an ongoing log of micro-stories, reporting on things like how many people sit in chairs, or the number of times a specific machine robs you of your hopes and dreams. Does anyone sit in the chair at all, and why, and who might that person be? What is the history of the machine and how did it get to be where it is? Every day, start with a clean slate and take stock of your micro-stories from the day before.
You should keep writing any micro stories that come to mind — it’s often lessons from early versions that help you improve your later ones. Say you start writing a story that has three or four confusing sentences in a row, without any context — just tiny chunks you’re having trouble connecting to the overall story. Whether or not you finish it, go back over it later in a fresh light and figure out what pieces do work, what they’re trying to add to the story, and where they might fit. Tweak your words as you see fit. You also want to work out any stylistic kinks you might encounter — maybe you’re having trouble finding the right tone for your writing, or you’re unsure of how to end a micro-story. Even if you’re sure you’re done with a story for now, revisit it, and like lyrics to a favorite song, pay attention to which words stand out and feel fresh.
Have fun with it
A great microfiction writer knows how to recognize a great idea when he or she sees it. Just looking in the right place can yield all kinds of inspiration. Spend some time with small things — scenery, people, little moments. Let your eye open up to new things, until a great idea catches your eye and you see potential in a fun story. A great microfiction writer is great because he or she can tell that same story over and over in many different ways, with plenty of different approaches and different characters. See all kinds of possibilities, until you find your favorite one.
Getting a microfiction idea out of your head and down on paper is a process of writing it down—but that doesn’t mean you need to be committed to writing a microfiction of a set number of words. You don’t need to write directly on a computer or with a planning app. Write your idea in a notebook, on napkins, on the back of a candy wrapper. Find a few things that will easily give you 5–15 minutes each day, and repeat them until your idea has some structure to it. Then see if any of your notes could work together, and if they could work together well. Put them together, and see how long your finished piece is. Sometimes you’ll realize your structure is too big, and you have to separate it into two bits. Other times, your microfiction will turn out to be much longer than a tiny story—but it’s a success if it’s an interesting one!
Write without planning
One of the biggest reasons loglines are so important in the world of microfiction is that more planning ahead will severely restrict your creativity. Instead, you need to write your microfiction based on the moment. No matter where you are or what’s in your mind, you can take out your smartphone, tablet, computer, or any other device and write down a short parable or fable about whatever you see, feel, think about, or read right then. Have you noticed a sign? Waiting at a red light? Started reading the newspaper? Wonder what would happen if you did X during Y? All fair game for a microfiction piece. Instead of debating for hours over the exact sentence that will make people laugh, rush to your writing or recording device. Whether you’re looking at Socrates confronting a young Plato, Plato wrestling with tyrants, or the landowner imagining the ascetic makes good points, the moment will be gone by the time you return to your desk or the table.
Each microfiction piece you create has a different final length, and the ending should come last. When you spend too much time planning a microfiction piece, you spend a lot of that time working on the ending. And what fits together at the beginning may not fit at the end. Microfictions are like improv comedy — a good actor will create a new character as new circumstances present themselves. Your story is the same way — it can’t have everything planned from the start before you begin recording.
Try different formats
There are several different ways to write microfiction, but they all have one thing in common — the tension inherent in limiting your content. Not too much, or the reader feels like you were cutting material for the sake of briefness. Not too little, or the story will feel thin. The trick, of course, is to find that perfect length. We recommend you try a few different synopses, and see which style captures the essence of your story and fits your own personal writing style. The three most common types of microfictions are micro-essays, micro-drabbles, and short short stories — all of which use an economical form to highlight only the necessary details of the story
Micro-essays are based in essay format, but limit the amount of words you use. You might use an interrogative angle and then answer the prompt in your micro-essay. Or it might be a descriptive paragraph about yourself. You may have to practice a bit before you can maintain an effective, tight essay in micro-format. If you tend toward being verbose, just focus on making your sentences more crisp and clean, and writing to a 100-word limit.
Don’t focus on length
While the names micro and flash fiction are often used interchangeably, it is critical to note that the two subgenres fit under different, though related, umbrellas. The strictest microfiction has a maximum word count of exactly 1000 words. This restriction keeps the writer entirely focused on the story at hand, and emphasizes economy of language and plot. Flash fiction also has a word count cap, usually of somewhere between 300 and 1500 words. Micro and flash fiction, then, is distinguished by their shared focus on brevity, but flash fiction allows for more available space. This is ultimately the most critical difference to keep in mind. You should focus your writing more on the speed and dexterity of your fingers, rather than the length of the writing itself. You might memorize a poem by Shakespeare just as easily romaine lettuce covers another poet.
It’s also important to know that most microfiction isn’t dependent on its form — it only needs to be a short story, and it will often read like one. Flash fiction is frequently not held to such arbiters as the number of characters that act, or what they do. However, it’s also imperative to note that, even though a piece might be well written, it is harder to stand out from ones that are overworked. By focusing on writing pithy, beautiful microfictions, you’ll set yourself apart from the legion of writers writing heavily constructed stories that are, for all intents and purposes, flash fictions presented in short story finery.
Look for a micro-story within your story
As you brainstorm for how to write microfiction, think about where in your current project you can create micro-stories. This is because effective microfiction relies on grounding themselves in the context of a larger, sequential narrative. When you’re structuring your micro-stories, think about how much context readers need. The best kinds of microfictions only tell part of the story — a few phrases to evoke their meaning though the completion of the story is left to the reader.
Also think about the relationships between your micro-stories. What can they offer that is powerful and different from normal storytelling. Draw them close to each other thematically, so that they offer clear internal and external links and reading them together adds greater depth to your story. As you design each piece of microfiction, your goal will be to write it in such a way that it deeply resonates with the readers — but there’s no way to predict that since it will vary based on who’s reading it. For example, you can use line breaks to encourage people to reread your microfiction, or keep it perfectly arranged into a minimalistic self-contained unit.
Focus on the details. Part of the reason that microfiction has such an impact is that it chooses a critical, perfect moment, and focuses on it, even analyzes it in some ways. The author needs to make big choices here—what’s the perfect moment to show? What’s the tone here? What element of the moment couldn’t be left out without changing the meaning? Your focus can be almost microscopic, but don’t make it tiny, like a carbon atom. Readers buy into microfiction because they know that there’s more to the story, and they want access to it.
Be specific. The same idea can be stated several different ways, and each of those ways will have a different feel. Make sure to pick the dialogue style that’s right for your story. Informal dialogue helps to foster a light conversational tone. Formal dialogue distances the reader from the speaker and the conversation, and can be historical, funny, or ironic, depending on the context. Direct addresses, like saying “I” or using informal nicknames like “Hey,” pull the reader into the conversation. Knowing when to throw in a little dialect will emphasize the kind of scene you have in mind. Font choices, capitalization, and punctuation can also make or break your microfiction.
All stories, especially short stories, benefit from stylistic brevity and minimalistic dialogue. In microfictions, this concept is especially important as only two characters interact. Every one-liner or conversation should have a purpose to move the narrative forward. Elusive and complicated descriptions need to disappear, and the physical setting, while it may be interesting, shouldn’t slow the plot down in any unusual way.
Characters need to be three dimensional without any unnecessary back story, and the overall plot of the microfiction needs to have just as much action as a novel with 300 pages. Point of view can be downplayed, if one character has been shown already, you don’t need to show all of their actions up until their point in the plot. In fact, keeping scenes to one or two actions keep things moving and interesting, especially when combined with the minimal conversation shown above. Try and show a character’s change in disposition through body language or short individual actions, rather than fully through large, life-changing actions.
One kind of microfic that is common to the genre is the idea of the “curtain pull,” where the reader is brought into a generic situation, and the writer slowly pulls back the metaphorical curtain of the setting and reveals the unique and interesting dilemma of the narrator. These are common in sitcom-esque fictions, but micro literary fiction is not above taking on a different form. In short, your reader needs to care about your story, as fast as possible, and the more generic it seems, the more you need to reveal all of your meaning and character dynamic in the opening portion of the story. Make your goal to cast and make every character engaging. Make them talk about something relevant to the story but in new and interesting ways. If a character is shy, for example, they may not necessarily want to interact with the others at any point in the story. But the reader may not realize how good the interaction is until you get to it, even if you’re leaping all around in the timeline of each scene. Choose each interaction for its most intriguing aspects first.
Set up interactions that intrigue and excite
With microfiction, the key is to engage your audience sensually . This means that what you write needs to be fun to read, and give the audience a sort of satisfying or exciting feeling — make the ending the punchline, or dole out thank you/you’re welcome messages. You can structure your stories like joke-tellers do, answering progressively rising questions to build tension before rewarding your audience with the payoff. The internet is full of ways to interact with people, and knowing how they behave, what they follow, and what they think is crucial to interacting with them well.
Tie together your disparate threads
The best microfiction delivers many emotions in a tiny space. And so it goes with the short film. Shorter stories can deliver big laughs or create totally engrossing universes, so long as they really pack a punch. What do you need to tell? How can you arrange your story effectively? Well, microfiction fans will tell you that there are lots of ways to introduce your characters and create conflict.
Predictable plots don’t work well for short-form storytelling. Why allocate an entire feature film to seeing through the protagonist’s ordinary goal when you can develop that same theme in under ten minutes? Even the most formulaic plots can work in a short space if you’re given the chance to remember why you found them at least fairly interesting. As with most masterfully told stories, microfiction requires you to master the elements of the story’s formula/thesis — this is the core through-line that remains consistent throughout the entire story. And then you have to subvert it.
You may notice that what was once the lynchpin to your emotional story has now been all but discarded. That’s okay, though. Writing a great microfiction piece is an exercise in challenging yourself, paring down your story, and clearly communicating an idea within a tiny amount of space and time. Whether you use microfiction to exercise parts of your brain that you don’t often use, include them in an essay, or expand them into a longer work, you can’t go wrong if you get rid of excess words and fully develop your ideas before writing. With practice, you’ll be able to pretty much spout microfiction whenever you want.
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