A Writer’s Notebook: one-sentence stories

The other day, some friends of mine and I were celebrating a new story by a writer friend of ours, Riley Schultz. Which is nothing new — I am lucky to know enough writers that I get to celebrate new fiction quite frequently. But what makes Riley’s story particularly noteworthy is that it is only one sentence long.

If that sounds too short to qualify as a story, check out Riley’s, over at Monkey Bicycle. It’s really good!

And if, having checked out her story, you think writing those things is easy, try writing one yourself. I did.

He felt the blood in his fingers and the hot bruise deep in his abdomen and his skull on the pavement, the gravel digging into his scalp, and he knew these moments were his last, which is why he determined to notice everything for the last time: the sidewalk pressing against his elbow so the bone pinched his skin, the way the blue of the sky looked darker in the center as though it were farther away than the edges, the tag of his t-shirt poking into the nape of his neck, the nearby whine and creak of his fender as it expanded and warped in the flames, how cold his feet felt, then his knees, then his forearms, and the distant cry of sirens, the time that had passed, and that would pass, everything past, everything gone, everything here, everything his, everything him.

At dinner, a blind date in a shoddy Italian place off Main Street, they watch each other eat, the fingers on the flatware, the tongues that reach for each forkful and lick the underside just before the lips close over the tines, the spare hand resting on the tablecloth, reaching, reaching.

On the way home I saw the cat again, hiding in the scrub and trash near the dumpster, and for the first time I stopped and bent at the knees, held out one hand and softly snapped my fingers, made a kind of clicking, chirping sound with my tongue against my cheek, glad for someone at least to talk to and to touch, but the cat backed under the dumpster, out that opposite end, and disappeared down the alley.

The scree of crickets near—a toad like a statue. Hop! into the leaves.

You may have heard of these before. Hemingway allegedly wrote the most famous one, a mere six words in length: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Lately, there seems to be a smallish vogue for the mini-genre, with stories popping up on Monkey Bicycle and One Sentence, and a whole series of “Six-Word Memoirs” published in (and later collected into books by) Smith Magazine, as well as a series on NPR.

When I read Riley Schultz’s story, I thought it looked like fun, so I decided to give it a whirl. Working in a whole story in just a single sentence, though, isn’t something you can do on the fly. You need some sense of completion, some sense of plot, some sense of character. How to get all that with only a single period?

I started with author Lori Ann Bloomfield’s idea of the “prose haiku,” a three-sentence story exercise she wrote about over at her First Line blog. But three sentences is too many for this exercise, and in my verbose style, it lends itself too easily to overly long sentences like my first attempt.

So I returned to Monkey Bicycle and reread some of the stories there, and I noted — whether it was intentional or just a fluke of Internet coding, I don’t know — that many of the sentences looked broken into lines, like poetry, which gave me the idea to start with poetry. So I looked into my old (bad) poetry files to see if I had any single, abandoned lines I might adapt as a one-sentence story. That’s where the middle two attempts come from.

Finally, I returned to the idea of haiku, for the brevity yet completion of an idea, and I took a crack at one last attempt, which essentially is just a haiku without line breaks.

All in all, these are four pretty shoddy examples, but I’m having fun with them.

One thing I have noticed in trying these out: as with very short poems, it seems the title is a key element in the one-sentence story, much more important here than in longer stories. I might even try pairing this exercise with the title exercise I hope to try next week, and see what happens. But more on that later….

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: one-sentence stories

  1. Hey Sam, if you haven’t already, you should check out short stories on twitter under the tag #vss. I occasionally contribute, but I have to be in the right frame of mind to manage a shortie in 140 spaces and that doesn’t happen too often!

    1. Thanks, Sam! That’s a great idea! I haven’t sold my soul to Twitter yet (several people have been urging me to, but I need to get my soul back from Facebook before I can sell it to anyone else!), so I’m not as up on the cool stuff happening over there, but that’s a clever way to limit story length and force creativity. I’m going to have to check it out. Is there a way we can find and read your contributions without signing up? I’d love to take a peek! 🙂

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