I want to explain what Two-Bit Stories are and why I enjoy writing them. To begin, I must peel back the curtain on the writing process. Stories come in many shapes and sizes, but all stories contain these basic elements:
- A dramatic arc, a.k.a. a plot broken into
scenes constituting a beginning, middle and end. More often than not, the beginning includes a
hook, sometimes called an inciting incident, which propels the reader to turn the
- A protagonist, the main character, and the
person the reader should care about.
Protagonists have wants, needs, or goals to achieve. Protagonists, and other characters, have
backstories that inform character motivation and provide a rationale for that
character’s decision making process. A
character’s choices stake out her path by influencing upcoming action and
setting the stage for future decisions.
- An antagonist, the character or force
opposing the protagonist.
- Conflicts or obstacles that stand between
the protagonist and her wants, needs or goals.
- A narrative voice, which is the unique
voice animating the story. A voice may
be aloof and distant, or close and intimate.
It may be reliable or unreliable.
It may be funny or fraught.
- A point of view, which I consider to possess
- A technical style, e.g. 1st
person or 3rd person, past tense or present tense.
- A narrative style, e.g. omniscient or deep
- A character’s perspective from which the scene is told.
- A technical style, e.g. 1st person or 3rd person, past tense or present tense.
In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks describes the basic elements of a story as concept and premise, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and writing voice. This wonderful book goes into great detail on the particulars of each of these story elements and advises would-be authors how to properly structure a story. Brooks’ key message is that story structure follows a pattern that readers intuitively grasp and expect. Meeting those expectations increases the chances that you will write a compelling story.
Crafting a great story requires incorporating all of these elements and then unspooling them at an appropriate pace. Writers ignore them at their own peril. If any of these elements are missing, chances are the story doesn’t fully resonate with readers. The challenge any writer faces is incorporating all of these elements into a cohesive whole that intrigues and captivates the reader.
I have written very long epic fantasies spanning multiple volumes, stand-alone novels, and dozens upon dozens of short stories. All of them include these basic story elements, at least I endeavored to make this so. The true test is in the hands of my readers.
Flash fiction, an umbrella term to define very short fiction, is much in vogue these days. Definitions of flash fiction typically range between five hundred and one thousand words, though there is no absolute standard. Micro fiction, stories of three hundred words or less, are also gaining in popularity. In an early example of micro fiction, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote a six word story: “Baby shoes: Never worn, for sale.”
I have experimented with these short forms and decided that I most enjoy writing thousand word stories. A thousand words fits comfortably on a single 8×11 sheet of paper printed in 12 point Times Roman, single-spaced and double-sided. I call these Two-Bit Stories.
Dictionary.com defines two-bit thusly:
- costing twenty-five cents.
- inferior or unimportant; small-time
I like how Two-Bit Stories satisfies both definitions. By selling these stories in bundles of four that cost $1, the price of each story is exactly two-bits. As for the second definition, my stories are not inferior or unimportant, but they are small-time in terms of size. A reader can pick one up and read it in the span of five minutes. In this digital age, in which everyone is rushed, in which Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) afflicts many, in which 280 character messages on Twitter limit attention spans, Two-Bit Stories are the perfect method to inject great stories into our harried, frantic lives.
I have workshopped most of these stories in my writing groups, Critiques R Us and Mac’s Fiction WG. A not uncommon comment is that I could have done more with X, Y or Z. Or explored more aspects of the characters. Or added more scenes. Or expanded the dialog. Or, or … or. I almost always agree, but the thousand word cap exists to force prioritization of story elements, to force me, the writer, to make choices on how to best allocate my chosen word count. That’s what I enjoy about writing Two-Bit Stories. I don’t have room for all the plot points of a full-length novel, or room to fully develop character arcs, or write lavish, literary sentences replete with simile, metaphor and impressive vocabulary. I must pick and choose which elements give each story the most bang for the buck. It’s a challenge I quite enjoy.
My choices depend greatly on the type of story I’m writing.
- Is the story based around an active
scene? These typically require more
- Is the story heavily thematic? These usually need to pack an emotional
- Is the story a fairy tale? These stories need a certain style of
- Can the story be told in one scene? More scenes bolster the plot and dramatic
arc, but cuts into the word count available for other story elements
- How many characters does the story
require? Every character ladles words
from the word count bucket, leaving less for the remaining story elements.
- What technical style best fits the
story? Which narrative style?
- Which character will hold point of view
for the story?
- Where’s the fat? Every story has some to trim.
Making informed choices is the heart of writing excellent Two-Bit Stories. I hope you enjoy this volume of thousand word gems.