Think Inside the Box

by Darlene Cah

I’ve posted, many times, about the connection between improvisational theater and writing. This month, our blog topic is “writing in constraints.” How could that possibly relate to improv theater? True, when you go to a live improv show or watch “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” (is that still on TV?), it appears as if the actors are up there in some crazy, free-for-all, flinging themselves around or bantering, lightning-fast, back and forth. In fact, as improv actors, we’re guided by a specific set of rules. Granted, as troupes get to know each other, develop trust and a group mind, the rules can get shady, but whatever takes place should be in complete agreement among all the players on stage, in the moment.

Writers work within a basic set of rules, too—grammar, consistent voice, point of view, etc. We need to know those rules before we can break them without our prose sounding as if we’ve made a mistake, instead of having made a conscious, creative choice. So why, on earth, would we want to inflict more rules upon rules?! Did us baby-boomers (or us tail-end-of-the-boomer generation) protest the establishment for nothing? Sheesh! In my experience, sometimes boxing oneself in is a surefire way of busting out of the box.

Ready to climb into the box? Move over, mimes!

Write Short, Shorter, Shortest
Flash fiction is a hot trend now, perhaps because we don’t have a lot of time to read, we want instant gratification, our attention spans are shorter or because more journals are publishing online and lengthy works are simply not practical. All of those reasons may be valid, but, because I’ve been writing flash since the early nineties and love the genre, I also believe it’s because some of the most innovative, creative work is short form. Writing a 500 word story demands precision and focus. There’s no room for fluff or unnecessary words. What’s not said (next month’s topic!) is as important as what’s printed on the page. You might tell a traditional story or paint a lyric vignette. You might experiment with format, mixed genres, compress time or expand it—what you do is wide open, within the restrictive word count. Flash stories can be as few as six words and, usually, up to 1,000.

The flash genre is not limited to fiction. Some flash fiction crosses the line to prose poetry, or, at least it’s interpreted that way. Years ago, I was a member of a popular, online flash fiction writing workshop, and a story I wrote sparked a lively (and friendly) debate as to whether the piece was fiction or prose poetry. Ultimately, it was published as fiction. There are markets for flash memoirs and flash plays, and I’m sure other genres I’m not aware of, not to mention genres within genres! Flash YA, flash sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, mystery.

When I was in Elissa Schappell’s workshop at Queens University of Charlotte, one of her in-class writing assignments was to write a memoir in six words, derived from SMITH Magazine’s well-known Six-Word Memoir project. Here are a few I came up with:

Mucking stalls. Mucking stalls. Mucking stalls.

Weight Watchers. Slim Fast. Still fat.

Grew up in the projects. Survived.

Big city chick. Now country girl.

Write on the Spot
I know writers who hate prompts. They feel overwhelmed, pressured to write. Yes! That’s the point! The purpose of a prompt is not to create brilliance in five minutes, though it can happen. It’s a place to start. What you write might be good. It might be crap. Who cares! Write!

Prompts force me to write in the moment, sometimes within a time constraint, and that pressure causes my brain to jump into improv mode, spiraling off into places before I can consciously edit, to places I might not have let it go if I were in writer mode. Fellow Tryon Writers member, Brittany Hampton Tokar, teaches a class at Isothermal Community College called “In-class Writing.” How perfect is that? Two hours of timed writing from prompts, no homework, unless you want to finish the stories (or poems or memoir or whatever) sparked by the prompts.

Prompts lead me to explore narratives I might not have thought of while staring at a blank page, agonizing over typing the first word. Prompts brought me to a small town where two boys leave Vacation Bible School to spy on a man they suspect is a vampire, an edgy artist who goes home with a street performer who dances with a life-size doll, an elderly, Afro-American Jazz musician who observes a stiff, out-of-place father and daughter sitting in the audience, and more. My favorite prompts involve having to use specific words or images within the story, organically, so they can’t seem forced, in any way. I’m inspired by visual prompts, as well. Works in local photo and art galleries are muses waiting to be called upon!

So let’s see what you come up with.

Share your six-word memoir (or fictional narrative).

Or create a 100-word story using this picture as a prompt:


Post your stories in the comments. I look forward to reading them.
Note: As far as word count is concerned, this is a flash-post. 🙂

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  1. #1 by talesfromahungrylife on September 24, 2013 - 12:44 pm

    Six word memoir:
    Wife, mother, sister, daughter. Still laughing.
    Writer. Reader. Blogger. Eater. Let’s Eat.

  2. #4 by talesfromahungrylife on September 24, 2013 - 1:08 pm

    100 Word Flash Story:

    Helen of Troy, NY
    By Maria Schulz

    When the sheriff came to repossess our store, I hooked our “cow,” Enid, to the back of my trailer.

    You see, Charlie picked her out special, back when we both expected a better ending. That was before Charlie killed himself with our old rusty shotgun.

    I like to think sometimes that I’ll make a hole in Enid’s belly, and rumble into the bank’s foreclosure office. They’ll be so taken with Enid that they’ll let me stay. But then I think, Enid couldn’t stomach it.

    Charlie and I could’ve made it work. But now, it’s up to Enid and me.

    • #5 by wordimprovisor177 on September 24, 2013 - 1:11 pm

      Great, Maria! I love the voice! Enid couldn’t stomach it! LOL!

      • #6 by talesfromahungrylife on September 24, 2013 - 1:14 pm

        Thanks Darlene! I’d like to say it took me 5 minutes to write, but it’s hard getting it down to 100 words. I really had to think about it. Lol

  3. #7 by wordimprovisor177 on September 24, 2013 - 1:20 pm

    I know! Writing short is way harder than writing long! But, thanks to Doubleday/Bookspan, we’re seasoned blurbalists!

  4. #8 by Matt S. on September 26, 2013 - 10:24 am

    Mobile Cow. No shock absorbers. Milkshake.

  5. #10 by Matt S. on September 26, 2013 - 11:14 am

    Mobile Cow through Hershey, PA. Delicious!

    • #11 by wordimprovisor177 on September 26, 2013 - 11:17 am

      You’re on a roll, Matt! LOL! 🙂

      • #12 by Matt S. on September 26, 2013 - 11:31 am

        Whole Milk. Two percent. Only Hoofs.

      • #13 by Matt S. on September 26, 2013 - 11:33 am

        Milk Box. On Stoop. Glass Bottles.

  6. #14 by wordimprovisor177 on September 26, 2013 - 11:41 am

    Keep ’em coming!

    • #15 by Matt S. on September 26, 2013 - 11:52 am

      Portable Cow. Corporate America. Introducing GoGurt!

  7. #16 by Matt S. on September 27, 2013 - 8:49 am

    Copy: Milk, does a body good.

  8. #17 by Matt S. on September 27, 2013 - 12:15 pm

    Got Milk mustache was Elmer’s glue.

    • #18 by wordimprovisor177 on September 27, 2013 - 12:23 pm

      Hysterical! You are beyond disturbed!

      • #19 by Matt S. on September 27, 2013 - 12:42 pm


  9. #20 by Matt S. on September 27, 2013 - 12:44 pm

    How Now Black and White Cow!

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