Review (and Six Tips For Writing) A Six Minute Story

I've become quite a fan of the Twitter hashtag #fridayflash, signifying a smorgasbord of wonderful short story creations every Friday, and easily showcasing the great writing talent that abounds on Twitter. A couple of weeks ago, I was giving the usually enthusiastic @inshin a little bit of grief, because his #fridayflash story hadn't appeared this week. Busy weeks creep up on all of us, it seems; but it seemed unusual not to see his latest contribution to what has become an ever-growing collection and wide variety of short stories on his blog. While he told me he missed doing his #fridayflash for the week, he did shortly share a link to something different he'd tried. A six-minute story.

I can almost hear the gasps in the background. A story, in six minutes? It shouldn't be unusual, perhaps. In a previous era, ad libbing tales around the fire was perhaps a little more common than it is today. The art of making up fiction on the spot seems to be perhaps something from a bygone age; but there is something to be said for the skills that are needed to do this; they're skills that would certainly help in more conventional writing. It is certainly an invigorating exercise for the mind – and for the fingers. Such is the intent of Six Minute Story – a "microfiction experiment". It's quite a simple concept. As soon as you opt to submit a story, a prompt appears (perhaps a word, a phrase, or a picture) to suggest a story to write, and a timer starts ticking down from six minutes. Once the timer gets to zero, you can't write another word. It turns out attempting to do this is quite an adrenaline rush, and, I must admit, I failed to write anything remotely submittable at the first few attempts. Nothing ventured, nothing gained – and no need to submit if you don't quite manage it.

I was drawn to write a review of the Six Minute Story site immediately on seeing it, and reading the delightful FAQ – without a doubt, even if this seems an unusual concept, the site distinguishes itself immediately by having one of the most crisp, clean, bold, elegant and above all readable designs I have seen in a long time. All too often these days sites manage to fill themselves with so much annoying clutter to make them look hideous and unusable, particularly sites that have a "social" angle – which Six Minute Story does. You can follow other members of the site, look out for their submissions, upvote contributions and leave comments; and the site has managed to include all that functionality very, very cleanly. What may not be immediately apparent is that the design of the site – bright colors, large, legible text – actually appears to achieve a lot towards improving the writing environment. This is something you can only experience if you give it a try. If you find the Six Minute Story environment inviting, and you are at all a serious writer, you might wonder why on earth you're trying your craft in an over-featured, over-grown word processor with microscopic fonts.

The experience of crafting a submission is certainly worth trying; it will, after all, only take you six minutes to discover if this is for you or not. The very clean and uncluttered writing window appears, with a panel on the right which will, once you start, contain the "prompt". Prompts come in several forms, and the site developer is looking to increase even further on the variety and selection. Most of the prompts I have seen have been intriguing still photographs, with just the right amount of ambiguity to lead to quite a variety of interpretations. Another type is the definition of hero, villain, and goal. On Fridays (quite convenient for #fridayflash, methinks) the prompt is freeform, allowing you to write about anything. Of course, as the FAQ points out, nothing is forcing you to write to the prompt, but writing to that constraint makes it a challenge. Below the text area are a few other entry fiends for a title and selection of a license. Creative Commons is the order of the day here; and, quite rightly, the site makes it clear that if that's not for you, then by all means post your stories elsewhere. Hopefully most of us can be reasonable about this, and contribute to an ever-growing, shareable collection of spontaneous stories. All these entry fields below the text can be left until after the story is complete; so be warned, as soon as you click in the text field, the prompt will appear and the clock will begin ticking.

How on earth do you write a story in six minutes? It turns out to be remarkably challenging, particularly if your typing skills, like mine, are two-finger hunt-and-peck and your ability to think on your feet is, well, never been tasked like this before. After a few failed attempts, I thought I might share the following six tips on how you actually get a story written in six minutes. If I can do it, I'm sure others can:
  1. Are you sitting comfortably? Believe it or not, this seemed to make an enormous difference. Lounging on the bed or with the laptop where its name suggests actually doesn't work. Sit up, in a good chair, at a good table, with a good keyboard, a good distance from the screen. It matters. And, as I hinted before, if this matters for this experiment, then it matters for your daily writing, too.
  2. Don't worry about how "good" it is. Probably the easiest way to completely lock up while attempting this exercise is worrying about whether or not what you're writing is any good. Don't. Just completely, utterly, ignore it. It appears worrying about whether your work is any good is probably one of the main things that might make it awful. Seriously, just eliminate this from your mind; you might actually be surprised how good what comes out actually is.
  3. Don't even think about editing. This is pretty much an extension to what's above. You won't have time to go back and edit; in fact, I somewhat doubt you'll have time to move the cursor at all. The editing gets in the way; just let the words pour out, stream-of-consciousness style. Again, you might be surprised about how coherent you become, and your work is freed from death by revision, as the FAQ gleefully states.
  4. Think three-act play. Act I needs to be finished in two minutes. If you're going to have time for a story, with at least some plot development and resolution, you're going to have to have all your characters brought in within the first third of your time. Yep, two minutes. One hundred and twenty seconds. My advice would be to try to avoid being artsy-fartsy here and give them names pretty quickly. The first sentence would be ideal, wouldn't it?
  5. You should know where you're going after those two minutes, too. After those first two minutes, that gives you four minutes for the plot and the conclusion. Do yourself a favor here and at least have some idea of where you're going by here. Don't try to write that conclusion and then join the two ends up; that's not writing stream-of-consciousness. Just have an idea of how deep a situation you can dig; and exactly how you're going to dig your characters out in the closing act. Oh, and don't even think of finishing with And then I woke up. It was all a dream. You haven't done that since fifth grade, right? That's the sort of excuse for running out of time you don't need. Just because you're short on time, doesn't mean you can't plan.
  6. Save yourself a few last seconds. You'll need them. This is just wise use of your time. Keep that concluding sentence in the back of your mind, as soon as it comes to you (hopefully somewhere around two minutes) and know you'll have to rattle that out in the closing seconds. Much better to have a story that ends, than one that doesn't.
Once it's done, fill out your title, keywords, choose your license, and submit it. Here's mine. No, I don't consider it a great work of literature, but it was certainly an experience, and an exciting one at that. Considering the time pressure element, I thought the result was surprisingly good – or is it because of the time pressure element? Quite possibly, this method of extricating fiction from the most difficult type of human on the planet – a would-be writer – may actually have something going for it. I'd very strongly recommend anyone with any level of writing expertise or ambition should give this a try; after all, it'll take no more than six minutes of your time. You might just discover something very much to your liking.

Visit Six Minute Story, and while you're there, check out darlingman1970. You can also follow @6minutestory on Twitter, and suggestions are always welcomed.

About darlingman1970

Born in the UK and a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge University, Chris Nash has followed a career in software engineering which he continued after moving the United States in 1996 and now brings him to California in 2010. However, Chris does not want to be considered as merely a code monkey, and has always been interested in writing; in areas as diverse as factual technical manuals all the way through to fiction. An avid reader, Chris is a fan particularly of mystery novels and enjoys above all the works of Agatha Christie and David Hewson. Chris has recently gone through some significant life changes which, at the moment, he is considering as the basis for a forthcoming novel and as food for thought on his blog. He manages to couple his loves of writing and technology and is particularly interested in how internet innovations have an impact on the writing and promotional process. Chris is a firm supporter of Creative Commons and other 'open' initiatives and believes strongly that such distribution mechanisms are the "right" way to handle intellectual property in an evolving digital world. Chris is a keen Nintendo DS and Wii player in his spare time, and is currently happily attached, living in the Central Coast area of California. Find him on Twitter as @darlingman1970. Don't ask him how old he is.
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