Writing MicroStories: The Rules. (There really aren’t any.)

Posted: February 2, 2020 by patricksponaugle in Flash Fiction, Opinion, Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

Warning: I’m not a writer, but I occasionally do write things. For 6+ years I’ve tweeted microstories, trying to fit something like a story into the length of a tweet. Some are more successful than others.

Recently on Facebook, one of my friends who reads my Twitter-length stories asked me what the rules were for writing microstories. (He sees mine on Facebook because I cut and paste from Twitter to Facebook – something that I didn’t have to do back in ye olde days because things used to be connected for cross-posting. But that’s not relevant here. I just like complaining.)

So, I gave him my rules for writing microstories. And I thought I’d share them here, for no real reason.


It has to fit into a Tweet.

This is not universally true for everyone or anything. It’s just my rule that I have to fit it into a tweet.

Back when I first started doing these, Twitter only supported 140 characters, so it was kind of rough editing a story in my head down to fit. (Particularly because 11 characters were going to be #MicroStory since I have to tag my flash fiction bits so people wouldn’t think I was crazy.) With Twitter expanding to 280 characters, it gave me more breathing room. I did try at first to restrict myself to 140, because I had some stupid idea that it would be lazy to write longer stories when I had trained myself to do it in 140. But that was silly on my part (and also harder to do because Twitter would only show character counts when you were getting close to 280.)


There are no other rules.

This is a lie, I have some kind of subjective ones and I’ll bring them up, but I don’t think of them as hard-and-fast measurable ones like Tweet-length. And even that rule can be broken if you want to write microstories that are up to 560 characters. Why not?


These are more like guidelines.

The benefit of my first rule is that it enforces succinctness, which I think is a hallmark of a microstory or flash fiction in general. Try to be succinct and terse. If one doesn’t go with a hard word count or character-count limit, then one has to be careful about being too verbose and descriptive.

I try to communicate just enough information that someone can intuit the setting (it doesn’t matter if their setting doesn’t match the setting in my head) and what is happening Right Now. And some idea of what’s going to happen next. Rarely do I feel the need to wrap up the story, although that sometimes happens.

In the occasionally successful (successful in my opinion) microstory there is a twist at the end, or final information that recontextualizes the earlier statements. My wife says that it’s like a punchline and maybe it is, but it’s not meant necessarily to be a joke. But it could be. Feel free to write a joke. (I have written microstories that people interpret humorously, and although it was not intended, I’ll take that as an accidental comedy success.)

Good word choice is important. One has to be terse and communicate information, or supply a hook where the reader can intuit reasonable context. Redundancy in the text can be avoided, but if there is still room in the story, redundancy can apply some emphasis to highlight a feature, or act as a call-back. Just be careful about running too long.

When I first started writing microstories, the Flash Fiction tag that I’d apply to the entries on my blog caught the attention of some writerly guy who went by the name Frederick. He decided to weigh in and his response was its own passive aggressive microstory.

These are good teasers, but I am reluctant to call them stories. It takes a great deal of skill and technique to write a book. A couple of sentences doesn’t do it for me… in terms of character, conflict, and resolution. These blurbs (for lack of a better word) don’t leave me with any lasting impressions. Perhaps I’m biased after working as a long form fiction ghostwriter for the past 10 years. Kudos to you for doing something different though and I’m only expressing my singular opinion.
— Frederick, August 1st 2015

Cool, cool, cool. Yes, I’m not writing a book. I know that. Sorry a few sentences didn’t nail it, although maybe my guy Frederick there wasn’t interested in engaging with any of the sentences. And that’s not his fault, but I can’t really force him to.

His dropping in his years of experience in not writing microstories was fine, as well as his patronizing tone and that his opinion is not just an opinion, it’s a singular opinion. That’s a good word for microstory ambiguity and interpretation, because he could have meant that it’s just his opinion, or he could have meant that his opinion was remarkable and extraordinary. I know what interpretation I think better fits the tone he seemed to be going for.

It’s fine not call to microstories stories, but stories come in all shapes and sizes. One of the most well known stories (in my opinion) comes from Aesop, and can be expressed in Tweet-length. (I wrote this just to see if I could fit The Boy Who Cried Wolf in a tweet.)

The boy cried wolf, and when everyone came, they scolded him for lying.
The boy cried wolf again, and when everyone came, they scolded themselves for being fooled.
When the boy cried wolf again, no one came and the wolf ate the boy’s sheep.

Clearly, the fact that many people know the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf already provides context. But still, all of the elements in the original fable are embedded in the tweet-sized summary I crafted. Even if it is not explicitly stated, we can assume that the kid is a shepherd because he seems to be watching over sheep (we can debate this, but whatever.) The tweet details break down the plot and underlines the moral lesson of the story that lying is bad, as communicated by the twist at the end, the lupine-twist that breaks the pattern. Again, it’s implicit, not explicit, and that’s okay.

There might be a lack of characterization among the boy and everyone else, but that’s not important to the actual story. One could write a longform novel about the boy, who he is, his relationship with his village, with the girl he likes, with the rival he doesn’t like, what his motivation was in calling for help when there was no wolf. What his parents thought about their deceptive shepherd son. Etc.

All that could be written, possibly with a great deal of skill and technique. (Although honestly, books are written without a great deal of skill and technique sometimes.)

Beyond characterization, the tweet-length of the fable allows for conflict and in this case, a resolution in the way of consequences. Aesop, you nailed it.

So, if there is another not-necessarily-a-rule rule to be added to this list: a microstory should at least have one fan. The person writing it should be a fan of their own work, even if no one else is. That’s still a success, Frederick. (I do know that some writers notoriously hate reading their own stuff, so I don’t want them to feel that they have to like their own stuff. It’s all good.)

So, them’s the rules. Not really any. If it works, it works.

I’m not saying that writing in general doesn’t have rules, but the rules are usually more based on the genre. People can write what they want. It might not be High Art or Marketable, but that’s a separate issue. Just write.

And if you want to write microstories, don’t write to much. Too much in regards to one story. Write as many microstories as you want. And if you want to, go ahead and write a book with great skill and technique, to shut up that Frederick.

Thank you to everyone who reads and enjoys my small stories. I tweet flash-fiction at irregular intervals on my Twitter account, @patman23. At more regular intervals on Twitter, I’ll be talking about my dogs, or television (mostly Game of Thrones), or raking leaves off of my lawn.

Want to read my earlier MicroStory collections? I have my first three years’ worth of stories HERE and the second three years’ worth of stories HERE

In general, I’m fine with anyone using the text of my MicroStories for non-commercial use. (Look how cute I am, thinking someone wants to make a t-shirt from one of my flash fiction bits. I say cute, but you can substitute in some other, more appropriate, adjective. I’m not the boss of you.)

© Patrick Sponaugle 2020 Some Rights Reserved

  1. Call this a blog? How dare you!
    (Frederick’s cousin)

    Liked by 1 person

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