This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.
The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.
Other posts in this series:
Start in the Middle
Use Familiar Contexts
Small Choices Make a Big Difference
Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary
Go for Emotion
The Implied Character
Very short stories are best at showing a moment in time, capturing an event and letting us expand on it with our own imagination. The more evocatively the author describes what is happening inside the frame of the story, the more we can imagine what has happened, or is happening, outside the frame. So: what can a writer do to write vivid stories?
It’s simple enough. Describe what the characters see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, and trust us to translate sensory experience into the story’s meaning.
Let’s look at some stories that rely on the senses.
The senses, especially the sense of smell, can be used to invoke a particular person or place, as in the two stories below.
Aunt Lucy buttered us each a slice of banana bread and sent us into the living room to watch wrestling.
Angela cursed herself for agreeing to drive. The car smelled like her mother’s perfume.
The senses can be used to give us a feel for a character in the story.
Mr. Gordon showed her the violin. Stacie shook her head and pointed to the string bass.
The two chairs cast slanted shadows. Harvey sat in one and drank his beer.
He painted a button on the last cadet and set it down. The lamp shone above the parade ground at West Point.
Sylvia pulled off her dress shoes and wished she had different feet.
A story can use a blend of different senses, which combine into something unique, like different notes combine into harmonies. It’s a fact: very short stories and barbershop quartets are practically the same thing.
Kevin’s sister painted his toes robin’s egg blue while he was asleep. He awoke to the tickle of her gentle blowing.
The blue of the toes blends with the tickle of the blowing.
They sucked helium from the balloons and sang Old Man River until they fell asleep with the lights on.
High voices singing a low song combine with lights kept on at night.
Dad tied a rope to the six-pack and threw it into the deepest part of the creek.
This story combines a taught rope, the bite of warm beer, and the sound of cold rushing water.
(Admit it: you heard the barbershop harmonies and then saw the striped shirts and straw boater hats, didn’t you? And then you imagined the author singing the tenor part of “Good Night Irene”. Right? See how that works: one sense perception can invoke others.)
Another way to use sensory images is to have them represent something else. In other words, they can be used to create metaphor.
Colin played his jaw harp for her as she went by. He loved the way she walked.
Here the sound of the jaw harp stands in for the bounce in her step.
Denise followed her sister down to the river even as the sun was going down.
Sandra pinched out the flickering candle. “Albert, listen to me.”
The two stories above use similar changes in the senses. Fading light is replaced by rising sound. The light is what is safe and expected, and when it’s gone something scarier and more uncertain takes its place.
Doris brought a blanket back to the couch. “Aren’t you cold too?” she asked him.
Doris is inviting him to get closer to her both physically and metaphorically.
Notice that the “character” stories above, starting with “Mr. Gordon”, are also using sensory metaphors to convey their meaning. Stacie doesn’t think she’s a “violin”. She thinks she’s a “bass”. Whatever is on Harvey’s mind is casting slanted shadows on it. Sylvia’s feet are tired, and so is her spirit.
A useful thing about sensory perceptions is you don’t have to describe them explicitly to invoke them.
Davey finally got the tap shoes for his birthday. He ran across the carpet to the sliding glass door and out onto the patio.
The story is loud with unstated sounds: the thump and swish of the shoes on the carpet, the slap of the hand on the door handle, the scrape of the sliding door, and finally the klickity-klack of the tap shoes on the cement patio. The story uncoils with a burst of energy from sounds, all of which are only implied.
They had only one pair of boxing gloves between them.
The writer does not have to describe the boxing match for us to imagine what it will feel like. And the imagination of both “soft” hits and “hard” hits lets us guess that the characters are boxing for fun – but not all fun.
Bettina showed him how much more fun rock paper scissors can be when you play for kisses.
Here is another story that relies on us to imagine physical contact, although of a different kind. Notice also the feel-and-sound blending of hard hands and soft lips.
Sensory descriptions can be used to create surprise.
Dad gave RJ the bright gumball and he popped it in his mouth. “It’s a superball, son.” RJ gagged and spat it onto the parking lot.
The above story uses an implied sense. We know without being told that the ball bounces on the blacktop and rolls away.
Mom asked what kind of kitten he had found at the pet store. Dad held up the Chihuahua.
The surprise depends on a sensory expectation. A kitten is soft and cuddly. A Chihuahua is not.
He saw the trombone case when he woke up the next morning. What had he been thinking?
Think how a different instrument would change the sense of the story. Our imagination of a trombone’s sound is doing part of the story’s work.
He slumped down and cried. And then he learned that ice melts when you sit on it.
Hot tears and ice water. Surely our hero has a lot to feel sorry for right now.
Sensory descriptions don’t always have to drive the story. Sometimes they just add flavor.
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and kept stirring. “The secret to gumbo is not to ask so many damn questions.”
Charlie Close is the author of two volumes of very short stories, Kites & Weddings and Rough & Beautiful, available on Amazon.