Understanding The Art Of Microfiction

Understanding The Art Of Microfiction

Microfiction is a literary genre that’s become increasingly popular in recent years and Commaful is one of the largest homes for microfiction. The term refers to works that are shorter in length than short stories or flash fiction, but usually longer than tweets. Like most pieces of art, microfiction is open to interpretation, with no hard and fast rules. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a few best practices to help you get started writing your own microfiction.

Learn to see your life in little plot-driven snippets

If you’ve never tried your hand at microfiction before, try to write your life as it happens, keeping it down to 100 words for each reminiscence. Doing this exercise will help you see your life as a story, and will also teach you to see moments of extreme conflict or detail in small spurts of conversation and action. This can come in handy when writing flash fiction, in which one moment usually signifies climactic change, or micro-fiction, in which one moment may hold as much narrative synergy as an entire novella.

As with other creative genres, your first draft tends to suck. In the case of flash and micro-fiction, you may find that your first several attempts at writing one actually suck. Just go through each of them, highlighting the best of each flash and micro-fiction. These snippets will help you extrapolate, as you’ll find that you can often stitch several moments together in order to move a larger, complete narrative forward.

Study other short fiction and short story collections

Every year, there are fewer critics who believe that even the best short fiction can offer the same emotional richness and meaningful insights of longer work, and more who view short fiction as serving a craftsmanship function — a place to learn about language, create compelling characters, and hone your tone and style. As a younger writer, you should certainly take advantage of microfiction as a space to experiment with different elements of prose, and your own range of tone and effect. As you read through short stories that were published in magazines, study them carefully, get to know them, and learn how they were able to pull together so many moving parts into such a concise, and enticing read.

It can be intimidating to launch into a short story after just reading one, since you’d be hard-pressed to get that same compelling, deviously crafted prose in one of your own. However, microfiction practice is still useful because you can focus on one or two elements of your craft at a time. If there’s an element that you’re particularly interested in — an online course may be able to help you proceed ahead in your writing, you can also start with doing it offline and then moving to microfiction. Read up on the elements of short fiction, and then choose one specific element to make your focus. For example, while most short stories have characters, some don’t — those are often considered to be flash fiction pieces, which often have to be shorter according to the publisher’s space constraints. Learn about fiction tropes as well, and make sure you’re developing your own character arcs.

The quick tell

Don’t confuse microfiction with flash fiction. Both are forms of writing tales that are smaller than a regular story, but the key difference is that microfiction takes a different approach to storytelling. In microfiction, the goal is to take as much of the story structure and message and put it into the first few sentences or paragraphs as possible. The longer you can leave it before your readers need to read on, the better. Of course, it also has to be obvious that this tale has only just begun. The closer you can get to the beginning of a story while still making readers want more, the better. This means that microfiction serves a lot of functions. You want to introduce as much of the story as you can, add in a snapshot of the main character’s personality, too, while leaving as much to the imagination as possible. That’s the mock difference between writing a short tale with microfiction. It is a tightrope walk of balancing on a thousand sunbeams while hopping from one rainbow to the next.

Having said that, there are also a lot of similarities between writing a microfiction and longer tales. The first step is to build a sturdy plot. One of the best things about microfiction is that it can exist without a plot, but that won’t work too well for beginning writers. It’s much easier to start out on microfiction and get a handle on plot and character development than it is for short stories or novellas. It’s also harder to get over the perfectionism hump that plagues so many beginning writers, because of the tighter restrictions. Readers of a microfiction piece are reading to discover what’s going to happen next, but unlike a traditional short story, they expect it to be over in only a few pages, rather than three or four times that many. This total lack of prologue-free short fiction can make for short, sharp shock that leaves the reader eager for more and leads to repeat visits.

Consider the challenges microfiction presents

Figuring out what you want to write about in your microfiction story.. You want the reader to have a good sense of what your story is about while only considering the tip of the iceberg. Remember the old adage that it’s better to keep your mouth shut and people wonder what you’re thinking, then to accidentally bare your soul to the world. You’ll also want to think about the challenge that faces the main character. It should be difficult, but surmountable. Try to write a story where the obstacle your character faces requires a leap of faith for them to find their resolution.

Once you’ve got an idea of the story and how it’s going to end, you’ll want to write down how you’d like your microfiction story to be different from other small stories and poems. Your story is going to have to be more powerful, more specific, or more beautiful in order to support its small form. As you write, you can become familiar with the type of language that you’re going to be dealing with. Microfiction is a much more bare-bones storytelling. Point out as much of the superfluous world around the story and cut it away. It’s best to know your target audience and write microfiction that isn’t going to alienate them. Play with brevity as a muscle so that it becomes more natural to write with flavor and grace, then hone in your sensibility.

Develop short attention span

When you’re first starting out on the road to microfiction, you might find yourself tempted to compose exceptionally long sentences. Those sentences are glorious! But if you’re trying to write a microfiction story to fit such a long sentence, you’re going to need to sit back in your chair and tap your bottom lip with your pen for at least ten minutes before they’ll be finished. That doesn’t leave very much time for writing microfiction. Instead, break your sentences up into smaller phrases. If you’re lucky, you might even squeeze a few words into the same sentence. Writing short stories forces you to develop a short attention span. The secret is to maintain a purposeful brevity so your sentence and paragraph lengths are considerably shorter than typical for you.

Once you’ve acquired the itch to write short, go get your writing prompt. When you find something interesting, look over your writing prompt for a topic that’s so simple that you could finish it in six words. If your chosen writing prompt leads you somewhere more complicated, go back and get a different one. At this point, you should also swap to a smaller writing prompt. For example, if you were writing a microfiction story that revolves around a chicken crossing the road, your writing prompt might be “go for it!” That’s what you’d need to say to make your six words, but that’s a little hard to squeeze into a consequential framework. Instead, try “chicken” or “road.” That might help you get back on track towards a microfiction first draft.

Make your story a tiny little journey

Nope. Sorry. If you’re writing microfiction, that doesn’t mean the way to impress readers is to be obtuse. In fact, the core of a microfiction is simplicity and conciseness. So while there are no hard right-or-wrong answers about what constitutes an appropriate number of words for a short story, you can look to notable arbiters for help. Kurt Vonnegut was the first writer to be billed as a “microfiction master.” His “tiny stink bomb of a tale,” Harrison Bergeron, is 510 words long — though Vonnegut doesn’t use a traditional period at the end of the story, instead just both the beginning and end of a sentence, split across two lines to make a short poem. After reading Harrison Bergeron, you’ll have no doubt about which words to cut if your story’s getting too long — at least, if Vonnegut’s your master or not. 

Short stories can also pair well with microfiction. In fact, you could consider trying your hand at a short story-microfiction combination. With a short story, you have more room to play with multiple perspectives and explore ambitious plotlines. While the general length of microfiction is around 150 words, you can sometimes disclose enough information to warrant more. 

In the end, it’s okay to let the substance of the microfiction shape the length of a short story. This hybrid literary form is still somewhat innovative in Western literature, even if it’s present in parts of East Asian culture, like manga. The most well-known microfiction-shorts story hybrid was published in the New Yorker, in his book Fairy Tales. Instead of writing a “traditional” story with a beginning, middle, and end, David Sedaris broke the story into five acts, each a different story with a different character, all under 1,000 words long.

Play with sounds

You don’t have the space to set up scenes like in a novel and you probably don’t have the space to create complex, unforgettable characters either. That forces you to rely on language itself. In order to create this world, you need to show us, but not tell us. Echoing — rephrasing ideas in slightly different sentences — can be a very powerful tool. Puns, plays on sounds, near-rhyme, repetition, alliteration, or finding ways to create music with your words — all of these are very powerful ways to build your story out of words. One short sentence can be very impactful. One thought, beautifully expressed, can electrify a sentence. In fact, it can electrify a story. Often, words are more expressive than a whole lot of words.

To do this successfully, however, you have to be familiar with storytelling in general, and storytelling through spoken language in particular. You have to learn how ironic distance is built, and how to modulate that distance through sonic expression. You need to be in control of the rhythm, rising and falling, peaks of drama, and junctures of silence. To use language this way, you have to know how it sounds. You have to listen to how people express grief, love, anger, doubt, uncertainty, fear, and everything else that the human heart experiences. The closer your words sound to the way people actually speak, the more your words will ring true. A great author always writes how she speaks and speaks how she writes. In other words, a great author is actually herself.

Almost every word of microfiction matters

You need to make sure you’re not going to shipwreck on a vocabulary hiccup. When writing microfiction, it’s easy to have a sentence go off track just because you get confused over the proper meaning of a word, and choose a different meaning than was intended. Word games are fun, and language is a beautiful organic thing, but video games are not the time for experimentation. It’s vitally important that you commit to committing, even to details on the sentence level like this. If you’re planning on writing a microfiction game, you also have to make sure you’re not going to run afoul of someone else’s lexical tastes too. Don’t discover your linguistic gymnastics have doubled the expected number of words in a round for players who don’t add incoherent Pepto-Bismol-stained parlance to their game time.

Take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Calm down, friend potter. Not only do you need to know your vocabulary like the back of your hand, but you also have to know your world. You can’t write microfiction about something if you’re not already intimately familiar with it. If you try to write microfiction that involves the Narnia books, but don’t re-read them at least a little bit before starting, you’ll miss big plot points that are essential to understand. If you try writing microfiction that discusses state politics, you may think you know what you’re talking about, but there will likely be too much esoteric political jargon you don’t remember. It’s easy to get lazy, but this just won’t do if you want to write a complete microfiction.

Choosing and editing strong words

No matter how strong the idea or the narrative of your microfiction, the writing itself must also be strong. One of the basic precepts of good writing is using the best word for your audience. Strong words have power and presence and this may make them too strong for microfiction and similar movements in written media. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use those words in your microfiction, but that some level of editing is required to keep them from overpowering the narrative. One technique writers use here is to choose different or modified words that achieve the same message. You could also look for lexical synonyms of words you want to keep in your microfiction and build it around these substitute words. 

Keeping your microfiction from sounding formulaic is a delicate art. Since you are dealing with just one idea, and unspoken rules must be followed, it’s exceedingly easy to fall prey to the formulaic mindset. Using too many typical words, too much or too little description or character interaction feel like things a reader can detect quickly, and cause them to lose interest. Part of avoiding formulaic microfiction is avoiding hackneyed writing. Choosing certain verbs, adverbs, prepositions or adjectives may cause your microfiction to feel tired and stale. Experimenting with different diction on the other hand opens up a new refreshing way of saying something.

Practice every day

Write a line a day. Microfiction shouldn’t be a spur of the moment creation. In fact, publishing microfiction is completely different than publishing traditional fiction because there is no option to take months upon months to edit something to your satisfaction. Because of this, write a little every day. Doing this might be as simple as writing a single sentence. Once you’re writing often, you’ll get more comfortable with your pen and your imagination.

Write exactly one page a day. When the story is an idea in your mind, the first few words can rarely be your final thoughts. This means you’ll find yourself once again editing when it comes time to finish and put your microfiction to bed. This might not be as much of an issue, as you will develop the appropriate amount of diligence and discipline needed to keep yourself perusing through to the end. If you’re dealing with similar ideas and views with someone else, bickering about where to begin your writing will probably not be as manageable or healthy as it once may have been.

Know that micro fiction is an art form

For those looking to pursue micro-fiction, take heart and do your research. Finding a voice that reflects your own is really important here. When you’re trying to tell a story in a small amount of space, what is most important is word choice. If that isn’t important to you, then something else is going to be, and it needs to be the central focus of your writing. Will you use other elements like imagery to flesh out the details? Will you focus on character and dialogue and hope that they will do the job for you? Every writer develops their own strong points over time, so it’s important to work towards what will make your stories really good — even if that means you have to start off making experimental shorts while you hone your skills.

Once you’re coming up with a story that you’re really excited about, the next step is to make sure it’s very tight and terse with its word choices, so that the most important narrative points come across perfectly and completely. It’s often a good idea to sit down with a character and a voice you like, and write them meeting up with a problem, moving through it like a story, and having everything moving to a meaningful conclusion at the end. Then you can cut down that story to micro-sized elements, and really work on those crafting skills. Micro-fictions are also really well-suited to narratives that rely heavily on emblematic details.

Writing microfiction is an artistic endeavor, and it requires as much craft as any other genre, though perhaps a different kind of craft. Focus first on writing something that’s an interesting, entertaining read, and then spend a lot of time reading other microfiction to better understand how it’s created and how other authors shape stories with it. The rest is up to you! Use your newfound knowledge to become the artist you were meant to be, and create works that will stand the test of time.

Other Posts You Might Like:

Join the Commaful Storytelling Community

Commaful takes everything you love about stories and makes it a bite-sized, on-the-go experience. Fanfiction? Poetry? Short stories? You’ll find it all!