Going deep in five minutes

I’ve recently tipped the balance of my performing efforts back toward storytelling and away from standup. I avoided doing this for quite a time because my stories are usually on the longer side — between 10-12 minutes. This is a problem because most of the story slams and open mics have time limits of 5-7 minutes. For a time I was taking longer pieces and amputating great chunks. I was rarely happy with the results, so I stopped performing for a while. Clearly this was not the right approach. I needed to write some new, shorter stories.

During this time I seriously questioned whether or not I could write a good story that fit into that shorter format. How could I tell something with any narrative depth in only five minutes? Then I started seeking out examples of shorter stories and noticing a few things. First, the teller typically jettisons all the pieces of summary information and characters that aren’t absolutely necessary. Second, the story usually starts at the latest possible point of entry and does not have a drawn-out ending — “enter late, leave early.” Finally, there are usually only a few scenes — 2-3 at most.

Up until now, I’ve come at writing a story by thinking of it as a timeline over which a series of events happen. I usually start with at least 5-7 scenes or discreet events. My draft stories are often 15-20 minutes in length, and then I go through the tortuous process of killing the elements that I love. That’s to get them down to 10-12 minutes. Even so, the story sometimes still feels rushed because I’ve packed in too much, and I fear that it’s incoherent and bloated.

I realized that it’s not just the length of my stories that’s been the problem. It’s also the way in which I’ve gone about writing them. I needed to try something new.

I’ve written and performed two short pieces recently — five minutes apiece — and for these two I took a radically different approach. I started with a single event — the memory that kicked off the desire to write the story — and I traveled outward from there. Instead of writing an opus and then cutting inward to the center, I wrote a single scene (or exchange of dialogue) and then added, building outward. Maybe this is obvious to most writers already. It was major news to me.

I also put a deadline on my writing so I wouldn’t obsess and overwrite. Both stories were drafted in about two hours. This does not include the “walking around” time — the hours and days I spent turning the idea around in my head and noting down new ideas — what Malcom Cowley would call the incubation stage. By the time I sat down to write, I was ready to write. The requirement, though, was to write a first draft in one, brief sitting. No food until I had a finished draft. A deadline, even one that is self-imposed, is a great motivator.

I also didn’t start writing until I was clear on what each story was “about.” This was also a new requirement. If I couldn’t identify the major theme or message of the story, then I knew it wasn’t ready yet. In these two cases, the themes were:

  • The power of false memories to derail us in the present day
  • The occasional necessity of redefining happiness

I liked the two stories that emerged from this process (I will publish them here eventually), and they worked well in performance too. The stories have people, places, objects and events in them — real world elements that are driving them, along with thoughts, observations and feelings. They never mention those two themes explicitly. But they do use them as their foundations. By combining clear themes with compelling imagery and events both internal and external — and being forced to write quickly and write short — I found the depth I wanted in five minutes. It’s been a beautiful discovery to make.


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