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16 Feb

Ultrashort narratives – I know this entry is a little belated, given my goal of writing once a week, but it took me much longer than I thought it would to finish the small piece of writing that will serve as the illustration for today’s entry. It’s been quite a while since I’ve done any sort of creative writing (nearly three months, shy one week to be exact), and a couple of weeks ago I saw something that piqued my interest and got the gears turning again.

“Was it really impossible to write a story that weighed in at under two thousand words?”

This something was a science fiction writing contest for a UK magazine, posted by a friend of mine over at the Ozone Asylum. After reading the fine print, though, I saw that I was not eligible as I was not a resident of the United Kingdom. But I was even more surprised to read that the submissions they were looking for had to be between one and two thousand words long. As I wrote at the time: “That’s a vignette, maybe, but I don’t see how you could possibly develop any real plot—even a typical single-thread short story plot—in under 2k.”

Then of course, I started thinking about it. Was it really impossible to write a story that weighed in at under two thousand words? As I so often do when first tackling a problem, I decided to start by defining my terms. What exactly is a story? A better, more precise term would probably be “narrative,” but even this can be pretty fuzzy. Merriam-Webster Online, for example, says that a narrative is “something that is narrated : story”. Gee, ya think? The definition for “narrate” isn’t much help either: “to tell (as a story) in detail”.

I decided to appeal to a higher authority—my trusty, dusty (well, not really, since it’s on CD) Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says that a narrative is “An account or narration; a history, tale, story, recital (of facts, etc.).” Searching for definitions only seems to be turning up tautologies. The dictionaries are apparently not going to be much help with this one.

OK, so maybe it’s difficult to say what a narrative is, but maybe we can talk about what makes a narrative. In my mind, narratives have one prerequisite: plot progression. That is, there needs to be a series of events (or even a single event, depending on how you define “event”) that progresses in some fashion, be it chronological, spatial, etc. “Progression,” of course, implies some connection between events. One of the simplest forms of connection is causal: John was late for a date with Jane, Jane punched John in the nose at the restaurant, John began spewing blood all over the place, prompting the waiter to call the police, etc. Events also might be connected because they feature the same character and represent a timeline of sorts in this character’s experience.

Those are very simple examples of connectivity, of course, and many narratives (especially lengthier ones) are far more complex, but plot progression does not include every possibility. A description of completely unrelated events is not a narrative—it’s just a description of completely unrelated events. This is actually a popular way to start a lengthy novel—to jump back and forth between seemingly unrelated events or plotlines, only to show in the end how they all tie together. But it is the length of the narrative and skill and imagination of the author that make this possible. If the separate threads never came together, it would be a collection of narratives rather than a unified whole.

Fortunately, though, we really don’t need to get into the intricacies of complex plot progression, because a sub2k (yay, I invented a word!) narrative cannot afford to have more than one plot thread. Thus all our events will be connected to each other, in one way or another, from the outset. With that short of a narrative, we will likely be limited to one point of view and the most simple means of connectivity.

So, if we can define a narrative as such, then I guess it’s pretty obvious that a sub2k narrative is indeed possible. In fact, such narratives are not only possible, they are abundant. Take parables and fables, for example. Most of Aesop’s fables run well under a thousand words, and parables told by Christ and other religious figures are often even shorter. Christ’s “Parable of the Tenants,” for example, weighs in at 141 words in the New International Version, yet it still manages to tell a story.

Fables and parables, though, are didactic narratives. That is, their goal is not to entertain, but to teach. As a result, these narratives lack many of the elements that, while not essential, are generally associated with an interesting narrative. For one, characters in didactic narratives are basically cardboard cutouts. They represent ideas, principles, or traits, and they act accordingly. There is no such thing as character development. Character development is when a character changes, for better or for worse, in response to his or her environment. In didactic narratives, both character and environment variables are fixed in order to keep the situation as simple as possible and illustrate the point that the teller is trying to make.

Mythic narratives and folk narratives, while more complex than didactic narratives, also generally lack character development. In mythic narratives, the character’s primary trait dictates the course of the narrative. Characters always act the same way in the same situation. A courageous character will always fight when necessary, while a cowardly character never will. Unlike modern narratives, where characters change as events unfold, the eventual outcome of a mythical narrative is determined by the traits of the character. Folk narratives, on the other hand, often depict outcomes occurring despite the traits of the character. Stories of fools and buffoons, for example, often show how these characters manage to succeed despite the fact that their foolishness should have guaranteed their failure. But the lack of character development is identical to mythic narratives.

I may seem to be going off on a tangent here, but bear with me—I promise you this is relevant. I have on my bookshelf a book called The American Short Story: A collection of the best known and most memorable short stories by the great American writers, which I bought during my last trip to the States to brush up on the genre. It contains 59 short stories, ranging from Washington Irving to Joyce Carol Oates. I made rough estimates of the lengths of these stories and chose six that I thought fell under the 3k mark, and possibly even the 2k mark. I looked these up online and then pasted them into MS Word to get exact word counts, and these were the results:

You’ll notice that, while all six did indeed come in at under 3k, only one shimmied under the 2k bar, although two others did come close. Before I took a look through the collection, two stories came to mind as possibly coming in at under 2k—The Lady, or the Tiger? and The Gift of the Magi—and I was surprised to see that neither did.

The only one of the six stories that made it under two thousand words was the one listed in the collection as Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and the Tar Baby, but which was in fact split up into two stories of 823 words and 654 words when it was published as part of Uncle Remus (in the project Gutenberg file, the first two stories in the collection correspond to the story I’m dealing with here). What is the secret to the brevity? As a cursory reading will show, the Uncle Remus stories are in fact folk narratives, and though they are technically written literature, they have the characteristics of oral tales: simple, formulaic plots characters, and a lack of in-depth description.

The first story tells how Brer Fox (“Brer,” by the way, is dialect for “Brother”) tries to catch Brer Rabbit by getting himself invited to dinner at Brer Rabbit’s house and then inviting Brer Rabbit to dinner at his house the next day (notice the mirrored plot). The second story tells how Brer Fox manages to trick Brer Rabbit by making a tar baby (basically a doll made of pitch), reflecting a common tale type (Native American oral literature, for example, features many examples of the tar baby tale type). In both stories, the characters are very one-dimensional and there is no character development at all. There is also not much in the way of description, either. The narrator (Uncle Remus) simply relates the basic framework of the tales, adding his own simple, colorful touches along the way.

Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is another short story in the tradition of folk narrative, this time a tall tale or a yarn. If we remove the four paragraphs that form the framework of the tale (and introduce the skeptical narrator) and are not actually part of the tale, we are left with 2,194 words, which is much closer to our goal. Simon Wheeler’s tale is more complex than Uncle Remus’ tale—and the narrator, as is often the case in yarns, is a bit more long-winded—and thus it is a little longer, but it is still a folk narrative and so remains relatively short.

The two stories that came closest to 2k but failed to break the barrier are not folk narratives, but their characters do not develop much (if at all) over the course of the story. Like mythic narratives, the characters’ traits determine the outcome of the narrative. In The Gift of the Magi, for example Jim and Della’s love for each other and their self-sacrificing natures lead to the twist ending, where both sacrifice their own treasures to secure a treasure for the other. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a series of brief daydreams in which the protagonist is a valiant hero, interspersed through a dull few hours in his day. It is a very clever way of showing us who Walter Mitty is through the contrast between his imagination and reality, but there is no character development.

It should be fairly obvious by now, even without discussing the last two stories, that ultrashort narratives have a number of things in common: simple, single-thread plots for one, and a lack of character development for another. When you’ve only got two thousand words to work with, it’s very difficult to weave a complex plot or develop a character or characters. With that in mind, I set about planning my own attempt at an ultrashort narrative in the science fiction genre.

I got the idea to tell the story from the point of view of a robot or computer as a way of avoiding complex characters. Of course, as I began to write about a simple robot I realized that the story was going to be very dull and shifted the focus to an artificial intelligence, which reintroduced the character issue. But it’s very difficult to write a narrative without characters anyway.

Something I like to do when planning a story or a novel is to summarize the plot in a single sentence. If I can do it with the 50k-word novels I write for NaNoWriMo, I had better be able to do it for a 2k-word short story. This was the sentence I came up with: A Von Neumann probe realizes that it is dying and decides to return to Earth, only to find nothing there. (If you’re not familiar with Von Neumann machines, you can click on the link to see what Wikipedia has to say on the subject, but basically they are self-replicating machines.)

So I began to write my story. This was ten days ago. Four days later, I had reached two thousand words (1,996 words, to be precise), but I had not reached anything resembling a conclusion. The problem was that I had started out at marathon pace when I was supposed to be running a sprint. In cinematic terms I had started zoomed all the way in and very slowly drew the camera back, and I didn’t actually introduce the setting (a cold, rocky planet) until I was at 700 words.

Rather than try to rework the story, I simply scrapped the first version and began writing again. This time, I started with a bang. By the end of the second paragraph I had finished introducing both the setting and the main character (the artificial intelligence). By the end of the fourth paragraph (still under 500 words), the AI came to the realization that it was dying. Four days after I started the second version I was finished, and the current draft went up on the Workshop the night before last (where it will remain until I put something else up, at which point I will have to figure out somewhere else to put it).

One thing that surprised me was how long it took me to write two thousand words (the current draft stands at 1,983 words). Each version took four days to write, at an average of about 500 words a day. Maybe it was because I haven’t written anything creatively since NaNoWriMo last year. Maybe it was the knowledge that I had so few words to work with. I’m not sure exactly why, but it was excruciating.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, you’ll probably want to go read the draft (still no title, by the way) now. I’ll wait. OK, ready to go on? I guess the question is, did I succeed? Well, I managed to write an ultrashort narrative in the science fiction genre, so in that sense I succeeded. But after rereading the six short stories above (I had read them all at one point or another, but a long time ago, at least a decade), my narrative pales in comparison. It’s not just that I am not as good a writer as Mark Twain or James Thurber, though of course that is part of it. My story is not very original, and it’s not very interesting. Most importantly, though, while I did manage to write a story and I did manage to come in under two thousand words, I don’t think this plot is suited to the ultrashort narrative form. I stopped writing before I reached two thousand words, but I wanted to—could have easily—continued writing for who knows how many more. What I have now seems like the beginning of a story, rather than a complete story.

Considering that the genre at hand is science fiction, a folk narrative would probably have been difficult to write. Not impossible, of course, but definitely difficult. Of the six stories above that did not follow the folk narrative form, The Lady, or the Tiger? and The Gift of the Magi smack of didactic narratives, and I suppose that would have been another option, one especially suited to the genre of science fiction. After all, many science fiction stories are didactic tales that warn against the dangers of progress or technology. My own narrative might even be considered didactic, but I don’t consider it to be, since I made no value judgments and did not attempt to send a message.

The last two of the six stories, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, could best be described as “slice of life.” In retrospect, this would probably have been the best route to have taken. Rather than try to squeeze a lengthy plot into two thousands words—and my plot, though simple, is more suited to a longer narrative—I could have taken a slice of life in a science fiction world. The goal of “slice of life” stories is not to send a message, or even to tell a story per se, it is to present a powerful image. As I mentioned above, Walter Mitty presents a very powerful image of the eponymous character, and Flying Trapeze presents a powerful image of a starving young writer.

Well, I have now used quite a few more words to talk about my story than I actually used to write it. I think I will wrap up the commentary here. Slice of life sounds like an interesting way to go, and although that type of story usually deals with realistic fiction, I think I might give it a shot with science fiction and see what happens. Whatever the case, I would like to get back to writing creatively on a more regular basis. Hopefully this will be a good start.

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