Image by Kelly Taylor used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Micro stories are not only great fun, but excellent practice for writers. Creating micro stories forces you to tighten your prose – an essential skill for any kind of writing. Naturally, these tiny narratives come with challenges of their own. Let’s look at this unique form of storytelling and what it requires.

What is a micro story? The traditional definition is a story that is 300 words or fewer, making it a subset of flash fiction. However, I’ll specifically be covering 100 words or fewer. A 300-word story is similar to a traditional short story, whereas at 100 words, the rules of storytelling become warped. In addition, 100 words is the length of stories at Microfiction Monday Magazine, which has become my favorite source for micro stories. I’ll be linking to stories there as examples.

Microfiction Is Not Always a Micro Story

As fiction shrinks, writing conventions change. At the flash level (1,000 words or fewer), not every writer thinks a narrative arc is necessary. Small fiction works are closer to poetry, and poems are not expected to have plot structure. If your goal is to write evocative wording and others are enjoying your work, you might consider a plot arc unnecessary. That’s fine. However, while you may have written fiction, you haven’t written a story. Stories are defined by plot arcs; without an arc, the story doesn’t exist.

Even if they aren’t strictly necessary, stories make fiction more compelling. So in this post, I’ll cover storytelling specifically. Even tiny pieces can have a story – many poems do. Including story structure in 100 words is difficult, but no one writes fiction because it’s easy.

Paring a Story Down to Micro Size

How do we get a piece down to 100 words? First, the obvious: trimming out as many unnecessary words as possible. At 100 words, you have to go through the entire piece and consider whether each word is necessary. You’ll soon learn which cluttering words you have a bad habit of including. Make a list of them so you can seek them out in your next piece.

While trimming is essential, the main factor in writing shorter stories is coming up with simpler ideas. That means fewer characters, fewer events, and less elaborate worldbuilding. Where a novel exists to have a multi-faceted discussion, and a short story to make a single point, a micro story expresses one interesting thought. For a good example, I recommend the satirical “Seaside View of a Woman” by Melissa Bobe.

Like short stories, in a micro story you have a choice between summarizing events or focusing on a brief moment in time. But whereas a typical short story with no summarizing would take place in one evening, a micro story with no summarizing would take place in about 30 seconds. That doesn’t seem like much, but anyone who’s ever seen Robot Chicken knows you can do a lot with 30 seconds.

Do micro stories have room for science fiction, fantasy, or horror? Absolutely. But you won’t have time to explain the rules of your fictional world. That leaves you with two options:

  • Choose a speculative fiction idea everyone knows. For instance, everyone knows what vampires or aliens are, no explanation needed. Check out the story “Unicorn Problem” by Brenda Anderson.
  • Your story is about a single strange deviation from reality, described in simple terms. For an example, read “Mechanic” by Siobhan Pratt.

Because metaphor is used so heavily in micro stories and few things in these stories are explained, the line between speculative fiction and mainstream stories can be blurry.

Story Structure Is the Same… but Different

Story structure is remarkably the same regardless of size, but that only applies up to a point. Unfortunately, writing is made of these indivisible units we call words, and each is limited to one idea. When you can’t fit more than a few words in your story, plot structure breaks down, losing detail that can’t be communicated without more complexity. Similar to quantum mechanics, stories are a little strange at the atomic level.

Let’s go over the three main components of story structure and how they differ at the micro level. We’ll get into examples of micro plot in the next section.

The Opening Hook

Every story begins with an opening problem or mystery. Its purpose is to motivate the audience to get through the story, so it must feel compelling.

Micro stories still have a hook, but it is much tinier and weaker. Since you only have to get the reader through one paragraph, micro hooks don’t have to feature a significant problem. All they need to do is raise a little interest or curiosity. In fact, they have a much stronger resemblance to powerful opening lines than they do to opening hooks for longer stories. To get the feel for these micro hooks, I recommend reading my post on opening lines.

The Dramatic Turning Point

We usually call this the climax. Climaxes are the peak of stories’ excitement. To fulfill audience expectations, climaxes in longer stories must meet numerous requirements. For instance, the protagonist should solve the central problem through their own merits.

Micro stories don’t always have a climax. When they do have one, it could also be the story’s resolution, and it’s unlikely to follow all the requirements of a climax in a larger story. Instead, the dramatic turning point is simply an important occurrence that changes the course of events and leads to the ending.

The Resolution

The resolution settles everything once and for all, giving the audience satisfaction and allowing them to move on. In most stories, this means that the audience knows whether the protagonist was successful in solving the central problem.

For micro stories, the resolution is the same thing as the story’s end note – the last few lines of longer work. However, while a novel can use an end note that simply reiterates the theme or premise of the story, that’s not enough for a micro story. Because every word of a micro story is essential, the resolution of a micro story must provide something new or interesting for the reader to consider.

Three Types of Micro Plots

Given those differences in structure, what do micro plots look like? Let’s look at three common types.

Traditional Plot

Some micro stories manage to include a surprising amount of story structure. Please go read “For the Kids” by TL Holmes.

“For the Kids” starts with a problem much like a bigger story – a couple won’t admit their relationship is over. The story climaxes when one of them breaks from routine, leaving without kissing his partner goodbye. We don’t see him struggle with this decision, and we can’t be sure either of them have experienced real character growth, but at this size, having a climax at all is an accomplishment. Then the story ends with a resolution: the death of the relationship. The vivid metaphor makes the resolution interesting.

Curiosity Plot

This plot type has a softer structure more typical of micro stories. An opening line makes the reader curious, and then the story satisfies that curiosity. That’s the hook and resolution, right there. Generally these stories have no climax.

For example, look at “Stream” by Dan Cohen. The opening sentence presents an intriguing situation. The story moves right to satisfying that curiosity, but it provides answers that are unusual, maintaining the reader’s interest until the end.

Punchline Plot

The structure of a punchline plot is like a joke, with an interesting setup leading to one impactful statement at the end. However, when done well, the end is not only witty but also emotionally satisfying. For instance, the story might describe a character who isn’t nice and have another character deliver a sick burn at the end.

A wonderful example is “What Roman Says” by Lori Cramer. The opening sentence makes readers wonder why Roman doesn’t want to be called a “boyfriend.” After a few mentions of “smirking” and blanket statements about women, we know Roman is a jerk. Because readers want him to get his comeuppance, the punchline is not just witty, but cathartic too.

The Style of Micro Stories

Like poetry, micro stories are expected to have great wordcraft. You’ll have to consider every word anyway, or you won’t get them that small. Many of these stories lean heavily on metaphor.

You might think that with so few words, micro stories don’t have room for details. But you’d be wrong. While most micro stories summarize story events, those summaries must include colorful specifics. “Show don’t tell” applies to microfiction just as it applies to novels. Don’t say, “I waited for her to return”; instead say, “I stood by the door as the light faded.” If you don’t have room for that, you must simplify your story further.

Micro stories are expected to be evocative. In comparison to the number of words, they should make an over-sized impression. To make the most of the words you have, you’ll want to choose language that carries a lot of cultural meaning. Tapping into a cultural knowledge base will allow you to communicate through association and implication. For instance, if you say “the impending delivery,” you’ve given the delivery a menacing feel, even though “impending” could technically just mean “approaching.”

Micro stories that require re-reading and rethinking are often praised. With so few words, it’s easy to leave some parts ambiguous and open to interpretation, and that gives readers something to think about. Unfortunately, it’s easy to go too far with this. Readers have enough trouble understanding writers when we’re trying to be clear. If your goal is to be ambiguous, you’ll probably elicit little more than head-scratching.

When you have a long day of writing ahead, creating micro stories can be a great warm-up exercise. When you move on to a longer piece, you’ll have a better eye for the details.

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