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About the thirty second short story

Elvis Elvis

I saw a TV commercial this week that told a perfect story, included all the elements necessary for good drama, and just enough detail to allow me to sympathize with the character.

All within thirty seconds. Pretty impressive, yes?

I only saw it once, and I cannot remember what it advertised (life insurance, probably). The entire story was told in dialogue. A woman sits in a hospital waiting room, obviously worried. An older woman comes and sits next to her. “Everything’s going to be okay,” the older woman says. She explains to the younger woman that they’ve made good decisions, they’re secure financially, nothing to worry about. When she describes the couple, she uses the word “we,” as though she were talking about herself. The older woman reveals a few more details of their lives. The younger woman finally says, “so you’re … me?”

The older woman smiles, nods. “A few years from now.” She gets up to walk away. “You’re going to love Italy,” she says. The younger woman looks confused.

“You’ll be going next year,” she says. “With Walter.”

As she leaves, the doctor comes out and tells the younger woman that her husband will be fine.

That’s the whole thing. Nice and neat, concise – the perfect exercise in economy. Yet it has all the necessary ingredients for good drama:

Structure – Beginning (the woman is worried about the outcome of her husband’s surgery), middle (she realizes that they’ve made wise decisions to help mitigate risk at this stage of their lives), and end (her husband recovers, and they enjoy a trip to Italy).

About the thirty second short story

Conflict and Resolution- The younger woman struggles with her worry about her husband and uncertainty about the future. This universal concern works well for creating empathy in a very short period of time.

Characterization – Most of this is through dialogue, which is clear, poignant, and reveals a very human and identifiable protagonist.

TV and film scripts are usually averaged at one page per minute of screen time. Because there’s so much dialogue, the spot would probably run to a page and a half, properly formatted. That’s still very likely less than 1,000 words – around the same length as a piece of “flash” fiction.

While I try for brevity and clarity in my own work, I rarely write stories under 1,000 words. They’re often longer than 4,000 words, which forces me to agonize, trim and cut, to prepare these stories for submission to magazines with 3,000-word limits.

So it goes, when you ply this trade.

Maybe the truth of it is that we’re simply unwilling to truly pare the story back to its essentials. We are so in love with the words – the conveyance, the language – that we can only bear to simplify so much. And perhaps stories need their thicker skin of words. There must be beauty, too, in the telling. A sense of uniqueness. Of voice.

Still, the commercial was a wake-up call, a reminder to take another look at the work I’m prepping for submission now. A caution to be thorough and exacting, make each word pull its weight.