“One hundred seems perfect. It’s the basis of percentages, the perfect test score, the boiling point of water (Celsius), purity. Pythagoreans considered 100 as divine because it is the square (10 x 10) of the divine decad (10), whatever…that means. Even a Scrabble set has 100 tiles. And yet 100 is a fragment. It’s an arbitrary marker, like the “First 100 Days” of a president’s term—merely a promise of what’s to come, or a whiff of what has passed…None of us will ever know the whole story in other words. We can only collect a bag full of shards that each seem perfect.”
Last week my English class had to write a 100 word story with a quote from Hamlet. It reminded me of one of the best writing exercises I ever did at The Juniper Institute for Young Writers.
The first thing that our teacher told us to do was to write a story that was exactly 100 words. It could be about anything, take place anywhere, and include as little or as many characters as we wanted. At first everyone in my group thought, “This will be easy. We’re writers, 100 words is nothing.” but 20 minutes later none of us were done. We found out, quite quickly, that 100 words isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Most of wrote too much and we had to learn the art of cutting words, others wrote too little and had to learn the art of avoiding overstuffing adjectives (or, adding in words without overusing adjectives). Personally, I’m always going to believe that writing more words is easier than having to take them out but the struggle can be just as frustrating either way. Sometimes, if you write too little, you will write another sentence to make up the difference and then learn that you are now over the word count and have to cut back. Other times you will write way to much (which is the problem for me in most cases) and find that you have to choose between two equally vital sentences to get down to the 100 word count.
So why write these stories if it’s so much work?
Well, here’s the thing. While writing a 100 word story can be frustrating, it can also help writers improve their writing and develop their own style. Because the writer is restricted by a character limit they have to think about each word they write. What am I trying to convey? Is this really necessary to my story? Is there a plot and if so how am I going to complete the arc in such a short amount of time? If I use contractions such as he’s or it’s, will my story sound the same or will it change the way the readers see my characters? All these things tie back to the stylistic choices writers make each day with every sentence, paragraph, and chapter they write. As 100wordstory.org says:
“The whole is a part and the part is a whole. The 100-word format forces the writer to question each word, to reckon with Flaubert’s mot juste in a way that even most flash fiction doesn’t. At the same time the brevity of the form allows the writer “to keep a story free from explanation,” as Walter Benjamin wrote…”
Another part of our writing exercise was to cut our 100 word down in half, and then in half again, and again, and again until we were left with about 5 words. Now, I know a three word story is useless but the point of these additional cuts was to show us where the most important part of of story was. For most young developing writers like me, pinpointing the most important part of a story is a skill we have yet to learn. To quote my teacher, Zoe:
“We only need about 20% of the stories we write, the rest of it is just “stuff” we don’t need that goes off topic or distracts the reader.”
So, my fellow writers, next time keep this in mind while writing your stories. Be creative, but be precise.
100 word story (and cut down) example:
Five recommended 100 word stories:
Confessions of a Former Skinhead by Becky Tuch
Collision by Marisela Navarro
Trove by Catherine Harnett
Playing House by Molly Giles
Corner Store by Kalthoom Bouderdaben
You can find more 100 word stories here.