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Monday Musings: 2 Words is NOT a Story

May 9, 2011

On the highway I saw a billboard that read:  Peace?  Peace.  And then gave a website something like 2 word stories.com or whatever.  And I thought to myself:  that’s not a story!  That’s two sentence fragments!

If you read my fan fiction post (aka Crusader “Challenge” 2) you’d know that when it comes to stories I’m a snob about it.  To me to call something a “story” means it uses characters and events in order to develop a coherent message.  That can’t be done in two words.  Not really in 144 characters either, though people certainly try.

I’m sure some very good people and very famous people (sometimes those are mutually exclusive) have written flash fiction “stories” and people consider them quite good.  But the thing to me is that you can’t really develop a character or much of a story in 50, 100, or even 1000 words.  Certainly not 2 words!  Two words isn’t even a freaking fortune cookie.

You remember those old NBC public service announcements that said, “The More You Know…”?  Well that’s how it is with stories.  The more you know about characters and the events that impact them, the more the story can develop.  The less you have of that, the more shallow the “story” will be.

Of course some authors can ramble on for 100,000 words and still not develop much of a character or have meaningful events.  Others can probably do it in 5,000.  But two?  No way.  Hey wait, that was a story!  No, wait, I’d have to put it like this:  Way?  Way.  Now it’s a story!

Again, feel free to call me a snob all you want.  I’ll freely admit it in this case.  I look down my little pig nose at flash fiction, Twitter “stories”, and these two word stories.  As Bobby Brown said, it’s my prerogative.

Wednesday find out why where you locate the story matters…

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13 Comments
  1. Agreed – you can’t write a story in 2 words, I don’t think anyway.

    Well, how about

    “Johnny died.”

    would that work? 😛 No, don’t see much plot arc in there…

  2. K. Howard permalink

    I disagree. My English TA mentioned the “non-narrative” which includes anything that is not explicitly said in the text. Authors can use this to their advantage; for instance, Ernst Hemingway’s six-word story:

    “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

    There was a minimalist movement in the mid-20th century that revolved around saying the most with the least amount of words. Ernst Hemingway cut and cut and cut until he managed to get that six-word story right there. Everything about it is based on the non-narrative. Yes, there are a lot of unknowns, but the reader is trusted to fill in the blanks themselves.

    Another example is “The Saga of Rex” by Michael Gagne. It was originally published in the graphic novel anthology “Flight” and if you follow that, you’ll see that there isn’t a word in sight. If you pick up the graphic novel (the one not in “Flight”), the first chapter has words, but the rest is said entirely through pictures. It’s really good.

    • Obviously I’m not talking about graphic novels here. Or silent movies. Or games of charades either.

      And I said, “I’m sure some very good people and very famous people (sometimes those are mutually exclusive) have written flash fiction “stories” and people consider them quite good. ”

      Basically if you’re asking me the reader to write the story, then what do I need you for? You haven’t written a STORY, you’ve written a PROMPT.

  3. I don’t think it can be done in English but two characters can tell a story in Japanese. For example, the kanji for Japan (the name of the country) is “Ni” followed by “Hon” 日本. The first symbol is meant to resemble a circle with a dot in it that over time became a horizontal line and which came from the drawing of the sun that a child would do on paper. The second symbol “hon” is meant to resemble a book stand with an open book. The meaning means “origin”. So when you read the two symbols together, it becomes “Sun Origin” and when referred to like that, you understand that what the Japanese people are trying to say is that their country “Nihon” is the “Land of the Rising Sun”. Plus you get how important books are and how important the sun is and many other suggestions in just these two characters.

  4. K. Howard permalink

    How would you define a story? Based on your post, “To me to call something a “story” means it uses characters and events in order to develop a coherent message.” I find this limiting.

    “Peace? Peace.” I do not need subtext or context or elaborate definitions of the characters and their backstories. I simply need the event that there was a question about peace and peace was made.

    You’re going to say there is no substance to a story like this. There is no driving force, there is no arc of any sort. Frankly, it just is. And I’ve read enough stories that “just are” to know that a story is more than just a series of characters and events. A story is an arbitrary number of words that tells of something.

    Adding more to the story does add substance to it. I will say that. But a story still exists without them. Skeletal? Sure. But still a story nonetheless.

    There is nothing wrong with a two word story, a story told in poem format, or a story that lacks anything resembling coherence — it just means that the writer took some artistic freedoms and I’m willing to include those in my definition of a story.

    Out of curiosity, if those two words aren’t a story, what do you call them?

    And here is a link to my favorite two word story.
    http://www.storybytes.com/view-stories/1999/short-trip-woods.html

    • Again K you’re talking about a prompt, not a story. “Peace? Peace.” Didn’t tell you a story; you created a story yourself based on the prompt.

  5. The problem, K. Howard, is that your story from Peace? Peace isn’t MY story. You thought there were two people; I instantly thought of two COUNTRIES. So I’m thinking “All Quiet On The Western Front” while you’re thinking “War of the Roses” which is Rogue’s point all along, so he’s right, I say.

    What’s actually at work is the division between poetry and story; as poems progress away from using rhythm and structure, they become more storylike, while stories can borrow from poetry’s use of poetic elements to become less narrative; I frequently use word placement and italics to put special emphasis on something, as in my book “Eclipse,” where I periodically had words repeated and set off, and used capitalization to emphasize the unusual way a character was thinking; those are poetic elements used in a narrative sense.

    So the ‘story’ “Peace? Peace” isn’t so much a narrative story as it is a poetic way of saying something about … something. That is, it’s a poem.

    Not a very GOOD one, but still, a poem.

    • There are poems that tell stories like “The Iliad” but they’re probably much longer than two words.

  6. K. Howard permalink

    But isn’t there a beauty in that? It’s a different story for every person, and it’s likely meant to be that way.

    A poem can still tell a story. See “Beowulf” and “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins. Poetry is just another medium for which a story can be told.

    I still call it a story. Call it what you will, but I suggest we agree to disagree.

  7. Lisa Potts permalink

    Well, I’m not sure about two words, but I love flash fiction and I will disagree that you can’t develop a story using under 1000 words. I’ve read plenty of great flash fiction pieces that managed a plot and character development and story arc using a minimal amount of text.

    But everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it’s a snobby one ; )

  8. I agree that 2-100 words does not cut it, but I’ve read some decent 700-1,000 words shorts and flash fictions.

  9. I tend to agree. It takes seven words minimum to tell a good story. Unless of course someone is wordy, then it can be as many as 15.

    In all seriousness, I agree, I generally don’t enjoy flash fiction, and rarely a short story that isn’t at least a few thousand words. Maybe there are examples out there that would make me change my mind, but I haven’t come across them yet.

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