mix up your #vss: ten creative very short story ideas

the very short story

If you’re a writer on twitter it’s likely you’re familiar with #vss, the Very Short Story. The hashtag is mainly associated with writing prompts.  There’s #vsshorror, #vssmagic, #vssnature, #vsspic, #vssdiverse, #flexvss, #vssnonsense—it’s prolific. I regularly participate in #vss365, for which a guest host chooses a daily prompt word. 

Something I find interesting about #vss is it isn’t cherished. Unlike poetry and longer fiction forms, very short stories don’t tend to be collected in anthologies. It’s impermanent, and I think that’s one of its best qualities. It is precisely this quality, however, that contributed to my developing an unfortunate and embarrassing writing habit.

subject verb object

While making extensive aesthetic changes to my blog, I was surprised to find that I had a shameful secret—secret only from me of course, as it was displayed for the world to see: I began all of my stories the same way! 

“Timothy tapped a finger on the fraying arm of his wingback chair.”

“Mary put her shopping basket on the floor…”

“Elijah tore the last five pages out of his notebook…”

How could this have happened? Easily. Because my very short story tweets were so quickly ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ it wasn’t until all my short stories were lined up in a row that I could see it: the tactic I had been using to ‘cut to the chase’ with my #vss—person does thing—had become a crutch, and I was still hobbling around on it in my other writing.

vary your very short story styles

Now I’m not suggesting I think it’s a bad way to start a very short story, short story, or anything else—but it’s not the only way. Today we’re going to talk about ten different ways! It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but I think it’s a good jumping off point for the kind of variety my writing needs. I feel confident that by diversifying my approach to very short stories my longer pieces of writing will be vastly improved as well.


1: leave ’em in suspense

Build intrigue into your twitter feed with a suspenseful situation that leaves the reader wondering what happens next. Describe the moments before your character finds the dead body, or horrifying monster, but withhold the reveal. No need to deliver on your promises (or premises) here!

The disturbing sound, like baby teeth in a clothes dryer, was loudest behind the left-hand door. A chill ran up her spine as Lila reached for the handle. She had to know what happened to Sam, but she was so tense it was impossible even to breath.

2: asked and answered

In this version one character asks a question, and the other answers it in a way that is interesting, surprising, or funny. The question sets the scene. Perhaps there’s a mystery: “Where’s that giant cloud of smoke coming from?” Or maybe someone did something unusual: “Why do you keep putting your socks in the dishwasher?”

“Why did you bring her in here? There’s not enough carbon dioxide. You know she can’t breathe!” 

“I ate a lot of beans earlier, so I thought if we just put her face near my… you know… maybe she’d be ok until we got back to base.”

“I’m not sure we can be friends anymore.”

3: upping the ante

For style three we have the classic ‘first person reveals a secret, something embarrassing, or confesses to a crime; and the second person out-does them with a more outrageous revelation’ bit.

“Marcy, I’m really sorry- I brought my cat to work for emotional support and now four people have hives or can’t breathe.”

“Thanks for telling me, Ali. Now I won’t have to explain why the donuts were full of shrimp pate.”

4: dollar store flip-flops

For this variation, two characters speak back and forth. Things are good, then not good, then good again, then worse.

“How’s your spacesuit?”

“It’s good… yeah, it’s ok—I’m glad I had one!”

“No kidding!”

“But it’s getting hard to breathe…”

“Don’t worry, the pump will start up in a second.”

“Oh yeah, it’s working now.”

“Just try not to panic when it turns off permanently.”


intermission

A humorous very short story tweet is similar to a comic strip—you have to establish the scene, the set up, and the punch line in very few words. You likely noticed styles two, three, and four are classic set ups for jokes.


5: everything is perfect…but is it?

In classic action movie style, something has occurred—you have the item/someone performed a task—and now you can achieve your goal! Except for one thing…

The core had been retrieved and was back in place, powering the reactor. They would be able to set off the bomb—but Imari wasn’t back from the drop site. Suddenly, Daphne couldn’t breathe.

What if something happened to her?

6: no, I’m fine, I’m just monologuing

An easy way to summarize this style is, “If you’re reading this, I’ve passed away.” Basically, someone is talking to someone who isn’t in the room. They usually accuse, reveal, ask for forgiveness, or ask for an explanation. Sometimes it’s a letter, sometimes they’re talking to god. The intended listener isn’t always named, but they don’t get a chance to respond.

I know you’ll never believe me, but that day in the basement, when you couldn’t breathe, I didn’t actually want you to die. I wanted to pull my hands away—I wanted to stop! But…something made me, Mae. I hope you can forgive me.  

7: personified trees, mainly

Style seven is a description of a scene; sometimes with emotional resonance, sometimes with an indication of an action to come, or one that has already passed. The inverse also fits here; when an emotion is metaphorically described as a scene.

The old willow on the top of the hill swayed in the breeze, touching its toes and stretching up to the sky like a school child singing rhymes. The high summer sun gave the landscape a moment to breathe and relax a while before the fall.

8: is it just me or is it bright in here?

In this style, your character thought that after some event things would be one way, but it turns out they’re not. Or that life was one way, but it’s not. In other words, they see the light.

You made me believe I needed you. That somehow the asthmatic tightness I felt was the necessary counterpart to the gift you had given me. You taught me struggle was normal. Without you, I learned how easily I could breathe.

9: a wrinkle in time

This is effectively style one with an important difference: a passage of time is conveyed. I think it warrants it’s own spot because the effect is different. Plus, if you can make hours pass in 280 characters: earnest slow clap to you.

In the trench, I could barely lift my leaden boots brimming with sludge. When the barrage ended, I crawled to a nearby rock and let my feet breathe. Hours slipped by as I rested barefoot. The others forgot about me, until my boots turned up beside a gouge in the earth.

10: after the storm

This version is a reaction shot of something we didn‘t see happen. An event occurred and this is we’re witnessing the aftermath—typically immediate aftermath, otherwise we’re into style seven territory, where the tone is more contemplative. Style ten is more engaged and energetic.

In the end, I was able to let go. I told them all how deeply they’d hurt me, and how painful it was to have to leave. But then I got in my car, and—whoosh!—I felt like I could finally breathe! I felt like the noose had been cut off me. I could let live, and live.


Did you recognize styles you use in your writing, or ones you’d like to try? I’m really excited to use these ideas in future short stories. Plus, now my very short story contributions won’t all be one-note! Thanks so much for reading!

tangentially yours,

anne

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