Mini narratives can be as brief as a paragraph
In The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee shares this tiny tale:
“In 2005, a man diagnosed with multiple myeloma asked me if he would be alive to watch his daughter graduate from high school in a few months. In 2009, bound to a wheelchair, he watched his daughter graduate from college. The wheelchair had nothing to do with his cancer. The man had fallen down while coaching his youngest son’s baseball team.”
In just 61 words, Mukherjee gives us:
- The motivation. The subject wants to live to see his daughter graduate from high school. The motivation is what gets the story started.
- The obstacle. The subject has multiple myeloma, a cancer that starts in the plasma cells in bone marrow. That’s what gives the story its tension: the conflict between the motivation and obstacle.
- The result. He lives to see her graduate, not only from high school, but from college! But, making this success bittersweet, he’s bound to a wheelchair.
- The punch line. Surprise! He’s in a wheelchair because he was in a baseball-coaching accident.
Can you do as much with so little?
Stories in miniature
The world is filled with beautiful, tiny stories. Gain inspiration for your own tiny but mighty tales from mini narratives like these:
1. "A Flower for the Graves" by Gene Patterson. This 1963 column tells a story and sprays a great big bottle of whoop-ass all over Patterson’s fellow Southerners, all in just 551 words:
“A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child.
“We hold that shoe with her.
“Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.”
Patterson, the legendary Atlanta Constitution editor who won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize, pounded out gorgeous short pieces like this day after day after day. We should all be so talented — and work so hard.
2. W.C. Heinz’s "Death of a Racehorse" (PDF). This 1949 piece covers less than an hour of action at a horse race. It leaves me breathless and — at 963 words — wanting more. It is so cohesive, I couldn’t pull out a single scene to share with you.
Simply put, writes Paige Williams for Nieman Storyboard, “it is one of the most glorious short narratives ever written.”
What can you steal from Heinz’s classic piece?
3. Ernie Pyle’s “The Story of Captain Waskow”. In 1944, the famous World War II correspondent wrote this 800-word account of how U.S. soldiers on the battlefield reacted to the death of Henry T. Waskow.
“Decades before anybody was talking about making journalism stories read like short fiction,” writes Walt Harrington, former staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine, “Pyle crafted an article that had the unmistakable feel of an Ernest Hemingway story.”
Here’s the lead:
“I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down. The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even partway across the valley below.
“Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on one side, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other, bobbing up and down as the mules walked.”
And here’s the ending:
“The rest of us went back into the cowshed leaving the five dead men lying in a line end to end in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.”
“Smokey stood bare-chested (aside from his fur) and unshod (ditto); his ranger hat and a pair of Wrangler bluejeans constituted his only clothing. His head fit onto his shoulders so well that the seam could hardly be seen. In true bear fashion, his full-length profile increased substantially at the middle. A man came up to him and asked, ‘Hey, Smokey—what size are your jeans?’
“Smokey fixed the man with a long, level, heart-stopping gaze. The man seemed to shrivel slightly. The bear crossed his forelegs across his chest twice, and then held them in a three-o’clock position: ‘X X L.’ His expression didn’t change.”
Can you manage to compress a beginning, a middle and end into just about 600 words?
5. The New York Times Portraits of Grief series. These pieces tell the stories of every single person who died in the 9/11 attacks. Here’s the life of Eddie D’Atri, stitched together from just 157 words:
“Lynda Mari was painting her porch last fall when she was approached by a construction worker with an extension cord.
“‘Hello, I’m Eddie,’ he said. ‘You mind if I borrow your power?’
“Eddie D’Atri was a handsome, muscular fellow. ‘I told him, “You can borrow anything you want,”‘ Ms. Mari said the other day.
“She asked him if he was a fireman. ‘I just felt it,’ she said. ‘Something just told me.’ He told her no, he was just a working man, but she didn’t believe it. Her brother is a fireman, and something deep inside her made her fearful of falling in love with a guy like that.
“But she did. They were engaged June 30.
“Mr. D’Atri was 38. He studied nursing and was a lieutenant at Squad 1 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He was crowned Mr. Staten Island in 1987.
“Sadly, steel is stronger than muscle, and Mr. D’Atri leaves behind a broken heart.”
How do reporters pull off these tiny profiles? Times editors write:
“The portraits were never meant to be obituaries in any traditional sense. They were brief, informal and impressionistic, often centered on a single story or idiosyncratic detail. They were not intended to recount a person’s résumé, but rather to give a snapshot of each victim’s personality, of a life lived.”
Not bad for mini portraits that weigh in at roughly 200 words each.
Cut a long story short.
Bottom line: The narrative form is no excuse for long, sloppy writing.
Sources: Paige Williams, “Building your canon: Small-scale narrative,” Nieman Storyboard, March 1, 2013
Walt Harrington, “The Journalist’s Haiku,” A Journal of Media Coverage, Summer 2003.