Last week's Friday Challenge, write a 78 word short story, was a fun exercise for me. It was a challenge to tell a full story in such a short space. In a traditional short story, the author can count on full paragraphs, or even several paragraphs, to pull the reader onward, drawing them into the story and almost forcing them to keep reading. When you only have 78 words, each sentence has to do the job of one or more paragraphs, setting the scene, describing the action, and resolving the story. Even better, a 78 word story gives us an opportunity rarely provided by most of our stories. We can examine the entire story, sentence by sentence, to figure out why it works (or doesn't work).
For those of you who haven't read my 78 word story, here it is:
My house lies in state, wrapped in a shroud of its own remains. I drift through the wreckage, remembering my frantic dash, carrying my son toward the shattered window. I stand over the beam that had come crashing down upon us. I gaze down upon the bushes which broke my son’s fall after I threw him out the window. I watch the firemen find my trapped body and plead silently, “Don’t let my son see me like this.”
Now, let's break it down, starting with the first sentence.
My house lies in state, wrapped in a shroud of its own remains.
The first two words set the scene; my house. The rest of the sentence tells you that something bad has happened to the house. Even if the "shroud of its own remains" doesn't make you think of ashes, you know the house has been destroyed. It could be a pile of rubble after being hit by a tornado or an earthquake or something else entirely. Whatever comes to mind, you have a picture of a house devastated by some kind of disaster. So the line succeeds in setting the scene while also presenting the question, "What happened to the house?"
I drift through the wreckage, remembering my frantic dash, carrying my son toward the shattered window.
I chose the word "drift" very carefully; it can mean to wander aimlessly as well as to float at the mercy of the winds. It's not surprising that someone whose house had just been destroyed might wander aimlessly through the wreckage. But a spirit or ghost would also drift. The word doesn't give away the ending, but it works well with it.
The sentence also marks the beginning of the action. The main character is making a "frantic dash," an image almost anyone can picture (especially after all the frantic dashes one can see in movies and television shows). The sentence tells us what is truly important to the character, the son he is carrying. Finally, it gives us the character's goal, a shattered window.
All told, this sentence sets up the ending, sets up the action, sets up the stakes, and sets up the character's goal. What it doesn't do is tells the reader exactly what happened to the house. The reader still has the question presented by the first line but also has a new question, "Will they make it to the window?" Tension is built because the goal is close enough for the characters to see but the frantic dash implies danger so great that even such a short distance may prove to be too far.
I stand over the beam that had come crashing down upon us.
This seems to answer the question posed by the second line, since it appears the beam is going to trap the character in some way. This is the third sentence of five sentences in the story, the exact mid-point. The scene has been set. The stakes have been set. Now is the time for a complication or a conflict to arise. We've already set the conflict -- man against a disaster -- and it's pretty much the entire story. That means we have to introduce some kind of complication, something unexpected which makes an already difficult task harder. So, the beam comes down and the reader is drawn deeper into the story. "Does the beam trap the character, putting two lives into further danger? What happens next?"
I gaze down upon the bushes which broke my son’s fall after I threw him out the window.
Well, that sort of answers one of the questions. There's only one reason the character would throw the son through the window; the character is close enough to the window to throw a child through it but it appears the beam has managed to trap the character. But all must be well, right? After all, the character is gazing down on the bushes and remembering events in the past. We now know the son is okay but tension for the parent ratchets a bit higher. Yet another question is added to all the other unanswered questions. "How does the character get out?"
We've finished four out of the five sentences and each of the sentence has left us with at least one question. So far, the only things we know for sure are that the house has been destroyed and the son is safe.
I watch the firemen find my trapped body and plead silently, “Don’t let my son see me like this.”
It takes nineteen words, nearly a quarter of the story, but all of our questions are answered.
"What happened to the house?" There are firemen in the ruins of the house. Obviously, it burned down.
"Will they make to the window?" We already knew the son made it, thrown by the parent, but he was the only one to reach the goal.
"Does the beam trap the character, putting two lives into further danger?" Yes. The beam forces the character to throw the child through a shattered window, something only a desperate parent would do. And the final line very specifically tells us the character was trapped by the falling beam.
"How does the character get out?" He doesn't. He's been dead through out the entire story.
Finally, though the question was never asked, the silent plea reinforces what we already knew. Through out the story, the most important thing to the character was the son. Now that the character knows the son survived, the character is concerned with the son's future. The son will be scarred enough from the memory of the fire, don't let him see the burned and ravaged body, too.
Most stories require some sort of input from the readers. A story as short as this one requires much more input from them. Where a traditional short story would spend a paragraph describing the wrecked house, I had to count on all of you drawing on memories of news stories, movies, television, whatever, to construct every last detail of the scene. I had to count on you extrapolating the age the son from the fact that the parent could carry him and could manage to throw him through a window. From beginning to end, I was counting on you to provide the majority of the story's imagery.
I appreciate all the help you gave my story.
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