What IS Microfiction?

Simply put, microfiction is a short story condensed into 100 words or fewer. Some writers say it’s 300 words or fewer. That’s fine, too.

I love this format for a few reasons:

It’s brief.

I read all the time. For work, school and pleasure and on screens, paper and frozen food boxes. In a world that demands my attention in more ways than I can give, I appreciate a good short story every now and then.

It’s precise.

Microfiction forces its author to act like a surgeon. You have very few words to waste, so precision is necessary in capturing a specific emotion while delivering a twist in only a few sentences. There’s still a beginning, a middle and an end, but all of the shock, surprise, humor or thrills are in one bite-sized chunk.

It’s good practice.

The New York Times called Hemingway’s prose “lean, hard and athletic.” Look at this excerpt from one of my favorite short stories, The Old Man and the Sea:

“The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.” 

Hemingway wrote in short sentences and short paragraphs, a strategy he picked up as a young journalist in Kansas City. Microfiction isn’t just a subgenre of creative writing, but a fantastic tool for writers to practice cutting their sentences down to the most essential words, beats and descriptions to make the biggest impact on the reader.

How do I write microfiction?

1) Choose an emotion

You’ve got 100 words or fewer to nail an emotion, so you’re going to have to pick just one. There’s no time for subplot or broad exposition, so think about a specific emotion or a feeling you want your reader to experience when they see the last period mark on your piece.

2) Make a character

There are a few ways you can do this. 

One: Give the character a name. Make it short and snappy and consider ditching the last name. Think about names that evoke feelings without giving them description. Billy or Sally can conjure an image of a kid in the reader’s imagination almost immediately. Flo makes you think about your favorite waitress at the local dinner. Or the insurance commercials, I guess. 

Two: Forget names. Let your reader have fun visualizing the character while reading the micro-setting you’ve described. You can use “he,” “she,” “I” or “they” for this.

3) Introduce the conflict

All stories revolve around a common structure and substructure. There’s always a beginning, middle and an end. Between those are the “A” story and “B” story, the hero’s call, refusal of the call, fun and games, meeting with the goddess, atonement with the father and a bunch of other neat things you can learn from The Hero’s Journey and Save The Cat! 

See how much of those beats and aspects you can cram in there, but don’t overdo it!

4) Write and the polish

Turn on your word count tool and get to typing. It’s fine to go over 100 (or 300) words the first time. In the editing phase, you’ll whittle down your copy and cut the fluff until you’ve met the word count. Instead saying “a lot of loud noises,” try “cacophony.” Try to condense a string of description into a single word that means just what you’re saying. Even better, match that single word to one that fits your mood, setting or emotion.

5) Pick a good title

Give your reader just a little touch of setting or clarification with a good title. Since you’re working with just a few words, let your title be a way to define the boundaries or setting of your story OR a final twist or surprise the reader can go back to and think, “Ahh, I see what ya did there.”

Let’s examine in storytelling terms and structure.

My favorite microfiction stories leave the reader slightly unsettled, shocked, surprised or laughing. Let’s say you’re going for something creepy and want to hit the beats I mentioned in step three. I’m going to use my microstory SWAMP THING as an example:

“Marco’s mother told him never to play by the water.”

Microfiction has to start “in medias res,” or “in the middle of things.” Here, I’m quickly establishing the main character, Marco, and his main problem, his mother said not to play by the water. It’s a brief description of the setting given to the reader and they’re going to fill in the rest.

“But his first time wasn’t so bad.”

Marco has not only refused to accept the boundaries of his problem, he’s openly disregarding it. This is my way of showing his debate and choice, key components of a character’s transformation.

“He touched something green buried in the sand. It was soft and slimy and cold.” 

I wanted to go creepy here, so I described something mysterious and odd. Imagine finding a tentacle buried in the sand. Marco was presented with the problem and this is his decision on dealing with it. He has chosen to touch this thing while most of us are thinking, “Back away, kid. That thing’s gross.”

“The second time there were eyes watching him.”

Marco is experiencing false victories here. He continues to defy his mother and now we get the feeling that something bad is going to happen. This is our midpoint, and tension is building for the climax. 

“The third time it whispered his name and held his hand all the way down to the bottom.”

Ah, dang! Marco just got snatched up by this creature! Remember, I’m going for creepy. Dramatic or action-based description doesn’t work as well here. Writing that a monster snatched up a kid for dinner in a calm and soothing manner betrays the readers’ expectations.

And now we’ve reached the climax. Marco is heading for rock bottom (or swamp bottom? Ew.) and our character is transformed by his conflict and decisions. 

“Marco never played by the water again.” 

Every character needs to return to where they started, but changed and transformed. Imagine a story where the character doesn’t grow or learn anything for 300 pages. Sounds like a book I’ll regret buying.

Here we go back to our introduction: Marco isn’t supposed to be playing by the water. He did and now he’s different. Or eaten. Or living with his Eldritch abomination friend. You decide.

I’ll leave you with this

One of my favorite pieces of (perhaps unintentional) microfiction was written by @Dustinkcouch on Twitter and voice-acted by Max Out of Ten on YouTube.

NASA Employee: “Oh hey u guys are back early.”

Astronaut: “Moon’s haunted.”

NASA Employee: “What?”

*Astronaut loading a pistol and getting back on the rocket ship.”

Astronaut: “Moon’s haunted.”

Thanks for reading!

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash.