It’s one thing to tell a story in fifteen pages or in a novel. The long sweep makes sense. Traditional ways of describing such a story are helpful. What is the conflict? How is that conflict developed? Where is the crisis point where things might go one way or the other? How is the conflict resolved?
It’s a different matter, though, to tell a story in a tight space. What about a story in a one-page poem or in a 900-word flash-fiction piece? This is storytelling on the subatomic level. There just isn’t room for all the steps.
When I am trying to tell a micro story, I focus on something very basic. Films, for example, often follow a predictable formula. Something “happens,” then the camera focuses on the face of one of the characters to see how that person “responds.”
For isn’t that the essence of a story on the smallest level? Something happens and someone RESPONDS in some way.
For example, if a man is looking out his bedroom window and he sees his dogs digging out from under his fence, this becomes a “story” the moment we know how he reacts. Does he shout out, “Oh, no!” Does he run outside to stop them?
Of course, it’s often more effective in micro-storytelling if that response surprises us. In small spaces, we want every response to be idiosyncratic enough that it reveals a distinctive character. In other words, it’s probably better if the man thinks, Good riddance.
Still, the challenge of “micro stories” is to make sure they don’t feel slight. How do you give them the heft and significance of novels or films or even a traditional-length story? The answer, of course, is to SUMMARIZE, to move quickly, to bring in different elements. In one of my micro stories, for example, “The Visible World,” a man wakes beside his wife to hear their sons shouting outside. He crosses to the window to see them throwing missiles of dirt balls and stones at each other. He knows he should yell at them to stop (his wife would, of course), but he stands paralyzed at the window, watching.
What has “happened” is that his boys are getting too violent with each other. And what is his “response”? He thinks he ought to do something to stop them but can’t bring himself to act.
Why? Here is when I move into “summary” in the story, where I try to give things more heft. The narrator, in that moment, has a memory of his own brother at about that same age, a memory of walking out on the frozen river near their house. The tragedy of what he remembers becomes, I hope, the larger picture of the story, its significance. It also “connects” the present story with the past story (he wasn’t able to react back then either). Here is how the micro story ends, where I try to mix idiosyncratic action/response and summary:
The ash clouds are low-slung above us, and we are treading carefully onto the thin skin of ice and snow. The surface creaks beneath us, faintly buckling, and then my brother disappears from view, as suddenly as that, and there is a dark hole in the ice where a moment earlier there was pure white and a silver sheen beneath it. I think, looking back, of the blown pupil of an eye. And it is silent on the river, as silent as the space between heartbeats. Danny isn’t waving his arms or shouting or splashing. There is simply this cavernous hole in the fabric of the world. My brother belongs, now, to the geography beyond sight, which, as far as we know, isn’t actually any geography at all. And I am standing there, standing. I am not moving toward the opening to find him. I am not racing back to the house to tell my mother or my father. I am not shouting help help. There is just the soundlessness of the snow coming down, the faint feathering of my own breaths. Looking back, I can easily see the police and ambulance when they finally arrive, can easily see myself standing before my brother’s grave, can easily imagine the weight of the years when I think of Danny like the distant sound of a train whistle that never seems to come any closer, can easily see myself rising in the morning to spy my own sons throwing rocks at each other and shouting, my wife’s figure quiet in bed. But none of that is real, of course. It never has been. All that is real is the ice beneath my feet, the snow coming down, and the black opening of river.