I’ve been putting off this post for a long time, because it’s got to be a long post. The reason is it has to include a bit of micro-fiction to pick apart. Some of you might like the trick, some of you might like the story, but I’m going to post it anyway.
I’ve been seeing more posts about writing short stories on Blogland. Some of them are good, but most of them could be summed up by saying make them short. That’s so obvious as to be pretty unhelpful.
In order to share this trick, I have to give you a story to pick apart. Since I’m allowed to post an excerpt for promotional purposes, I’m choosing one from the Experimental Notebook. It isn’t my fault that it makes a complete story in 900 words. If you like the story, there are more in the Notebook for 99¢.
50 Gallon Drum
It’s just an old 50 gallon drum. It sat alongside Mitchell Creek, just across Daddy’s field, for as long as I could remember. It may have fallen off someone’s truck, or it may have been dumped there beside the washer and dryer that had been there for years. It had blue paint once, but that’s faded over the decades.
My dog and I checked it out when summer came. Mitchell Creek was always a good place to catch tadpoles, or even a frog if we got lucky. The drum had a band and latch around the top, but it rusted pretty good in the spring rains.
I remember that I could look back at the house and see my bedroom window from where the drum sat. The trees were all young then, and there wasn’t much shade. Mitchell Creek Road ran up the other side, but Momma didn’t want me to go that far.
We didn’t find much more than garter snakes around the rusted appliances. Momma told me girls don’t play with those, so we never brought them home. When the wild roses bloomed, we had every kind of butterfly you can imagine, and even hummingbirds showed up around that old barrel.
In ’04, a bunch of yellow-jackets made a home in the barrel, and it became a place to avoid. They lasted for a few years, until the swallows found them.
That winter, Mitchell Creek became the preferred path for a red fox to get to his hunting grounds. We never saw him, but the tracks showed where he passed.
My old dog took to using the shade of the barrel during the brutal summer of ’05. He’d get his drink from Mitchell Creek, then curl up beside the barrel during the heat of the day.
That was the same summer Momma started on her nerve medicine. Daddy let a couple fields go fallow so he could spend more time with her. He leased those fields to a big agribusiness in ’06.
’07 was the last year the dog went to Mitchell Creek. Daddy buried him out behind the barn. It was a good year along the creek. The hazelnuts produced a bumper crop, and my dog would have enjoyed protecting the nuts from the squirrels.
Billy White felt his first bare breasts along Mitchell Creek Road in ’08. No, they weren’t mine, but we’re about the same age. They belonged to Connie Turner, who was a JV cheerleader that year. Billy played third baseman on the high school team, and he could hit a ton. It seems only natural they were interested in each other.
Billy carved their names in a young walnut that grew ten feet from the barrel. They’re still there to this day.
The farmers burned the stream banks in ’09. They said the willows were getting too thick. It really doesn’t help, they just grow back thicker than ever. It killed off the roses and hazelnuts for a few years though. That about ended the blue paint on the 50 gallon barrel too. It curled up and fell off in the flames.
The fires cleared away enough brush that you could see the road really clear. Hundreds of cars drive by every day, and not one in a hundred pays any attention to the junkyard that Mitchell Creek became.
The muskrats moved in with a vengeance in ’10. All that fresh young willow growth was like a dinner bell for them. The party lasted until late winter when the foxes returned. Owls showed up too, and flew off with a few muskrat kits.
In ’11, a barn cat gave birth in the old washing machine. You would think the kittens would be cute, but they were wild as hell. One of the owls grabbed a grey one on a cold September night, but she raised three to adults.
The barrel slid three feet downstream in ’12. The snows were deep, and when it thawed the flood almost took the road out. The barrel sunk about nine inches in the mud, before the summer sun baked the mud hard.
The willows still hadn’t grown up much. The barrel became a resting place for crows and ravens as they headed somewhere else.
In ’13, magpies nested in the walnut tree. That was a noisy summer. Those babies were hungry, and their parents worked ’round the clock to make sure they all had enough to eat.
The hazelnuts returned that fall. Nobody picked them, and they attracted many a fat mallard that winter. Billy White and Connie Turner were newlyweds, and Billy picked off a few of those mallards for Sunday dinners. He had a dog that looked a lot like my old dog. He’d jump right in the water and bring back the ducks so Billy didn’t have to get wet.
We lost Momma in ’14. She never did get over her sadness. The medicine helped for a few years, but the sadness won out. She’s buried in Mitchell Cemetery, about a mile from the house.
Daddy hasn’t been the same since. He didn’t plow the fields, and didn’t even try to lease them out. I think he has what they call a broken heart. He just stays around the house and watches the weather all day now.
The cars still drive by on their way to, or from, work. The wildlife ebbs and flows along Mitchell Creek. The old drum is still there too. It’s just a 50 gallon drum, but it made a great place for a passing truck driver to stash my body in 2004.
There’s the story. I got a ton of nice comments on this one, and it makes a great example for this tip. We’re going to pick it apart now.
I relate this story structure to a magic trick. I learned the words in a movie called The Prestige. It’s been a few years, so I had to Google the words to refresh my memory. The premise is the stages of an illusion performed on stage.
- The Setup: Get the central idea in there right away. The title of the story isn’t too soon. Show the audience readers what the illusion story is about.
- The Performance: This part is relative to The Setup, but it’s all about misdirection and deception.
- The Prestige: This is the ooh aah part of the story. This is the big revelation that readers never saw coming.
The title is 50 gallon drum. It’s also in the first sentence of the story. Where did it come from? What does it look like? How long has it been there? These are all established in the first paragraph.
The Performance part is the body of the story, but I’m not leaving the theme of the 50 gallon drum behind. I beat it, well, like a drum. We start getting to know the narrator. Catching tadpoles sounds like something a young person might do. We strengthen that by referring to Momma.
We establish that our narrator is a girl, and reference roses, butterflies, and hummingbirds. By now, the hope is that readers are along for the ride. A girl hanging out along the stream, catching tadpoles, and sniffing the roses.
This is where I establish the timeline. 2004 wasn’t so nice. This is an important year with ties to The Prestige part of the story. Yellowjackets are a kind of wasp that eats carrion. Not everyone will pick up on that, but if you’ve ever had a picnic in the American West, you know about yellowjackets. The end of the story tells us exactly what they were feeding on, but not yet.
Our narrator has a dog, and he keeps going to the stream and hanging out. He knows what’s going on. Most readers aren’t even going to notice that the dog is going to the stream alone.
Momma starts on nerve medicine, and Daddy loses interest in farming. I wonder why?
Then it moves into the ebb and flow of nature along Mitchel Creek. There isn’t so much that I could lose readers, but a few paragraphs are easily digested.
If I did it right, my readers are along for the ride and enjoying the passing of years along this neglected country stream.
By the time I get to The Prestige and pull back the curtain, readers aren’t expecting this at all.
I don’t use this method all the time, but it’s a neat trick to know if you write short form. It’s almost like a three act structure for a short story. I think it gives writers a little more value than an article that says, “Use less words.”
I’ve been writing short form stuff ever since. I think this works better with micro-fiction up to about a 3500 word short story. It could work on something longer, but I don’t know if you can carry out The Performance phase for 30,000 words.
What do you think? Does this sound like something you might like to try? Do you want to read the Experimental Notebook? Does sharing a look behind the scenes ruin the story for you? I’d really like to know what you think, so tell me in the comments.
I’m going to a seminar in Atlanta next week. I’m taking my old iPad, so I’ll post something along the way. I’ll also get a chance to participate in comments and read your blogs during my down time. My posts during the week won’t be quite this long, I promise.