Striving for minimal action in a short story

Contrary to the impressions this blog gives off, my primary writing passion is not essays, nor is it informational pieces. My favorite writing passion isn’t even non-fiction at all; I like writing fantasy, and especially, science fiction. Unfortunately, I simply don’t have any creative outlets for sf. This blog is great for writing informational and editorial pieces, but I daresay I don’t have the confidence to just chuck a whole short story on here. Maybe confidence isn’t quite the right word. I just don’t know if it would at all be successful in a blog format. Very few people do it, and I can’t help but think there’s a reason for that.

One of the questions I occasionally muse over in place of actually writing sf is how minimal a short story can get. I’m not referring to length, which must remain normal (many thousands of words), but rather, action content. How little action can a writer pen into a short story while still making it interesting? Is it possible to write an engaging short story where nothing happens whatsoever? I’m thinking it might be possible. I once wrote a heavily detailed, multi-page description of a scene. Technically, nothing happened; time remained frozen as I described the scene. I think it would be possible to stretch that description further into a full short story, sticking only with the present and not delving into the past or speculative future. The author of such a work describes only how things are, not how they got that way.

I think such a story would be a novel break from traditional fiction. It would be a single snapshot, a solitary glimpse, into a huge fictional world that the reader knows nothing else about. There is no resolution, no plot or character development. The author thinks out the entire plot and cast of characters, then records a single instant with lovingly rendered prose, a single frozen-frame instant that defines everything. Imagine if an instant in your past that you aren’t proud about defined everything about you that anyone will ever know. It could be like that, too. Imagine if the frozen instant happens to occur when the hero is lashing back at the villain in self-dense: to the reader, the roles would be entirely reversed. Morality and traditional roles of good vs evil are more ambiguous when the reader lacks clues of chronological cause-and-effect.

I find a lot of potential and appeal in this format. It serves as a great way to exercise a writer’s descriptive abilities (far too many aspiring writers focus on action over description, and while hundreds of actions may take place over the course of a short story, the reader never gets a feel for the setting). The reader would get a different sort of satisfaction in reading this kind of story. It wouldn’t be about plot resolution, as there is none of that, but rather, reading an incredibly elaborately detailed scene and trying to puzzle out, or simply dream up, the set of circumstances that led to this point, and thinking on what might happen afterwards.

I’m going to try writing up an example of this format. It won’t be as lengthy as a fully fledged short story, but it certainly won’t be meager. And heck, even though I’m unsure of the suitability of doing so, I’ll post it here. Maybe the idea yields terribly uninteresting chunks of text that could hardly be described as a story, and the format should be dismissed out of hand. But maybe it works.

6 Responses to “Striving for minimal action in a short story”

  1. Will (green) Says:

    Here’s hoping it works. It sounds like a good idea, and I applaud your creativity.

  2. Gordon Says:

    It’s Leo Szilard’s work you want to read .

  3. Will (green) Says:

    How do you even say that? “Szilard” looks like one of those words that, when people say it, you say “Gesundheit!”

  4. Will (green) Says:

    So how’s this project going?

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    I’m having trouble thinking of a detailed-enough setting to work with.

  6. Will (Green) Says:

    As an idea to get yourself into the right viewpoint, you might try looking at a picture and describing that in every way possible in two or three pages. A thousand words? :)