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An Arc in 95 Characters

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I write really short fiction. This is probably because the element of writing craft I find most difficult is plot. I think this stems from my personal aversion to conflict, but that's another post for another place (like an entry in a therapy journal or something).

Usually I just try to write and revise and not worry too much about any single aspect of craft. I'm not a "credentialed" writer--I don't hold a degree in creative writing, nor am I in pursuit of one. (That this lack of a degree seems somehow rebellious probably says something important about the American literary scene; I'd rather not get into that.) But sometimes, instead of just mucking about and seeing what happens, I do try to work in a more formal way on the weaknesses I perceive. Other times, though, I find calls for submissions and contests that make writing mostly very short things a strength, and that can be a lot of fun.

Two such recent opportunities came in the form of the Great American Sentence Contest, still in the judging phase, from Easy Street, a new online journal of books and culture, and a call for "Ad Stories" from online flash fiction magazine matchbook.

What are Ad Stories? They are stories that fit the requirements to run in the Google AdWords program: three lines, maximum 25 characters on the first and 35 (spaces included) on the latter two, followed by a link. matchbook has now published three rounds of such stories, which they do in fact run as advertisements, and I was excited to have one my ad stories, "Madeline And The Shark," chosen for Volume 3.

In all I wrote probably half a dozen of these stories, and submitted four. The biggest challenge in a form this unforgivingly brief is finding a way to fit in some sort of traditional narrative arc--some hint of plot--into a character span so short that it can be hard even to write an entire sentence. Still, I figured, trying to do so would both capitalize on my writing-short-things strength while exercising my sad little plotting muscles.

So I wanted to share how I tried to write these tiny stories, while also sharing my three leftovers.

First, the one that's currently live as a potential Google search result: "Madeline And The Shark." If you go to the matchbook website, you'll see that this story does not, in fact, even consist of a complete sentence. It's a title, plus a sentence fragment. This is the last of the Ad Stories I wrote prior to submitting, and it works entirely by implication. Based on what I've given you as the reader, you can make a few assumptions: 1) Madeline was the victim of a shark attack. 2) Madeline survived the attack (because the story is the act of remembering it). 3) Madeline is haunted by the attack (the memory of the attack seems to be sensory and its recall involuntary).

Here are the other three stories I submitted:

While at the time I was just writing, as I do, and striving to meet the technical requirements of the call for submissions, I've enjoyed looking at how each of these functions differently in restrospect.

"From When The Fish Died," for example, is essentially character-driven. You get a snippet of speech here, which is fairly revelatory (I think) of who the speaker is. You get the hint of a scene: at least two people, standing around a toilet, trying unsuccessfully to flush a dead pet. And you're left with a little something extra--while the speaker seems to be saying that either the fish or the silent owner is unlucky, he or she is having to deal with a toilet backup.

"History Lesson," meanwhile, works by massively compressing and simplifying a story that spans millenia: nothing less than the beginning and end of the world, with a single intervening event. Of the four, this was my personal favorite, and bears some similarities to another longer-but-still-very-short story I wrote last year and am working to place. Playing with time and the relative importance or unimportance of human events, plus thinking through the implications of mortality: some of my favorite things to do as a writer.

"Mirror Image" is my least favorite. Like "From When The Fish Died," it's character-driven, but without the speech element, I think we learn a lot less about the "he" in question. The "she" is completely reduced to an object, something to look at (or not). Still, we can get an idea of the relationship between these two people, and predict an unhappy future.

After reading through the other fourteen stories published alongside "Madeline And The Shark" a few times, it's been instructive to go back and more closely examine how other writers rose to the challenge. And looking at them again, I'm struck by how important the titles are, how even the title has to do a good deal of work to set up the story.

So that's my little miniature self-tutelage in writing super-short stories and trying to get them to arc. If you want to seek out "Madeline And The Shark" in the electronic wild, try these search terms: shark, shark attack, feeding frenzy, shark week, shark frenzy, shark sounds. If you do find it, please, take a screenshot and let me know; clicking on it costs money that will run out and cause the story to go into retirement, so try to avoid doing that! And thanks for reading.