Ultra-shorts: lemon-drops of creativity

Ultra-shorts are not fashionable shorts Wonder Woman and Aquaman wear to work out. Rather, they are extremely short stories that can sometimes be as short as a sentence or two. But these are not just any sentences. They are ultra-short stories because at a fundamental level, they contain within them the seeds of everything a larger story does, which is what makes writing them such a challenge and why reading them can bring so much pleasure.

My own experience with ultra-short fiction started on Twitter where a community of folks have been writing stories that fit into just one tweet. You can see some of my ultra-short stories collected here.

Despite their brevity, almost every story implicitly or explicitly includes the following:

  • A character – they may be named or unnamed and they may or may not be the narrator
  • Motivation – there is intimation that the character wants, has wanted, or will soon want something
  • Conflict/Uncertainty – almost always, there is (or was or will be) something standing between what the character and what they want

Those points should look familiar. They’re the exact same building blocks writers use to construct short stories and even scenes in novels. The biggest difference between ultra-short fiction and longer pieces is that in longer work, like novels, readers want a writer to intimately understand a character. Reading becomes a way of seeing through the eyes of another and experience the hopes and fears of someone unlike oneself.

Similarly, a novel requires constant interplay between motivation, conflict, hesitation, resolution, and aftermath. Think about it – a scene where you don’t understand characters’ motivations seems confusing, even pointless. A scene in which a character wants something and immediately gets it (no conflict or hesitation) is boring – we read for the drama, after all! And a scene without resolution and some acknowledgement of aftermath feels abrupt and unsatisfying. An example of this might be a scene in which characters want different things in a relationship (motivation) and have a fight about it (conflict). If we jump to the next scene (the characters happily sitting and watching television together) without seeing some kind of resolution and aftermath, we will feel whiplash. The story will feel disconnected.

Ultra-short stories take all of the above and condense it down, relying on the power of a readers’ imagination to fill in the gaps.

Take the example of the story I wrote on July 12th:

The #antagonistic engine knocked and coughed, threatening to strand Mae in the blistering desert between Kansas City and Denver. She hated traveling in daylight but she had no choice. By nightfall, they would have caught up & found the grey body with six arms in her trunk

Although it is only 272 characters (with spaces), you immediately learn something about Mae: she is determined, she is either desperate or courageous or both. She doesn’t seem to have a lot going for her. You even learn something about where she is: North America either in the future or in an alternate reality (since present-day Kansas is mostly not a desert). Finally, although it isn’t stated explicitly, a reader would usually suspect that having a body in the trunk of a car (not to mention one with six arms!) is not normal. Combined with Mae’s desperation not to be caught by “them,” a reader should intuit a very strong sense of conflict even if they don’t know exactly who “they” are or why the body in the trunk is such a problem.

In fact, that kind of ambiguity invites the reader of an ultra-short story to play around and insert their own hopes or fears. The reader takes the 272 characters and begins to sketch the in-between: maybe “they” are government agents chasing Mae because of an alien whose body she stole as proof? Maybe “they” are a rival gang in pursuit of Mae, trying to recover a the body of a gene-spliced mutant who holds the key to some internecine conflict? In a novel, readers expect the writer to provide deep, satisfying explanations to all of these questions. In an ultra-short, the satisfaction comes precisely from having multiple overlapping possibilities available.

So what makes ultra-shorts “lemon-drops of creativity?”

For a writer, working on one (or a series of) ultra-short stories is a great mind-cleanser. Especially when paired with a certain word or idea prompt, it gives an opportunity to dip a toe into genres outside of those the writer typically pursues and peek into the mind of a character they won’t feel pressure to flesh out later. It also presents a chance to think at a super high level: what words imply motivation, conflict, and personality within just a few words? Like a lemon-drop, ultra-shorts are palate cleansers for writers, giving just a taste of something else before plunging back into novels, novellas, and (more traditional) short stories.

They are (hopefully) creative pleasures for readers, too. Because of their ambiguity, ultra-shorts are like the fill-in-the-blank mad-libs stories or the choose-your-own-adventure books one might have enjoyed in childhood. It is a delightful to have the freedom to select the interpretation of the story that suits your tastes and preferences. Too often, in our day-to-day lives, it feels like there is one answer, one correct interpretation of what we watch or read. Not in ultra-shorts. A well-written ultra-short should leave a reader feeling like they really got it even if their reading was totally different from someone else’s.

So what does it all mean? Should we stop reading books and read nothing except ultra-short stories and haiku from now on? No way! A single ultra-short could never hope to match the deep and dynamic portrait of a person, a family, or a country that a novel or epic poem can. But maybe we could all include more ultra-short stories in our day-to-day lives.

Want to read more of my ultra-short stories? Check them all out for free right here.

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