Unexpected Benefits of Flash Fiction

How many times do we plan a lesson focusing on a specific skill, and then we realize that our lesson covers not only that skill, but others as well. Our lessons may serve the planned purpose, but sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes, one activity or lesson ends up serving multiple purposes. And sometimes, if we’re really lucky, that activity or lesson serves multiple important purposes. This was so with a story compression activity that we did as part of our Flash Fiction Summer Writing Academy.

Flash Fiction: stories that are very short, often times with a specified word count

The challenge we started with–and we did this with students who were entering second through sixth grade–was to take a familiar story and compress it to first fifty, then twenty-five, then six-word stories. The examples I’m sharing are for Cinderella, but we did this with many other fairy tales and fables including Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Tortoise and the Hare, and Rumpelstiltskin. Additionally, we asked students to do this for picture books they read during the week they were with us, and I have no doubt this would work in a regular school-year classrom.

In order to help teachers understand the challenge of creating a fifty-word narrative, I asked them to do it during our PD session. When I gave them the prompt of writing Cinderella with fifty words, almost all of them wrote something along the lines of the one I’m sharing:

After her mother died, Cinderella lived with her step-family. They were mean and treated her like a slave, but she was nice to everyone. Cinderella’s fairy-godmother helped her get ready for a ball, she met the prince, they fell in love, and lived happily ever after–without any of her step-family.

The one I wrote as an example was significantly different:

“Wash my clothes!”

“Do the dishes!”

“Scrub the floor!”

So much work! Every. Single. Day!

“I want a different life,” Cinderella whispered to the birds.

A fairy godmother overheard.

“I’ll make a magical dress,” the godmother said.

Cinderella donned it, the prince fell in love, and they lived happily forever.

Once I showed them the example I’d created, we had an inquiry-based conversation about the differences between summaries and stories. What makes the first one a summary? What makes the second one a story? Later in the week, the teachers duplicated these discussions in their classrooms. These discussions helped students appreciate the importance of dialogue, characters, and action.

Another important lesson that we didn’t realize would happen involved the difference between scenes and summaries within a story. In my 50-word example, there’s an imagined scene that includes Cinderella and the sisters within the first three lines, and then a quick summary at the fourth line. Another scene happens between Cinderella, the birds, and the fairy godmother, and then the idea of living happily ever after falls into a summary category. We have lessons in our curriculum starting in fourth grade that have to do with scenes versus summaries, and that’s a tough concept even for professional writers. However, in this one exercise of compressing a well-known story, the difference between scene and summary is clear for both teachers and students. While the differentiation requires close reading, twenty-five words feels so manageable for teaching the power of a scene in contrast to the practicality of a summary.

Once we took the challenge of a fifty-word compression, we challenged students to write twenty word stories.

Some of our samples included:

I must go to the ball, Cinderella cried, alone and depressed. If only….Whoosh! Magic fixed everything. No shoe? No problem! She married the prince!

Cinderella lived with a mean step-family who wouldn’t let her have fun. Thanks to magic, she went to the ball, danced,  and married the prince.

“Do all the work!” the stepsisters shouted.  “I wish…” Cinderella whispered, tearing up. A magical dress appeared. A prince fell in love. Happily ever after!

We debated these samples as to which one seemed the most like a story and why people felt that way. This debate led to a group discussion of scenes and summaries, as well as an analysis of:

  • Sentence structure
    • Students noticed how placing adjectives after nouns not only adds interest to the sentence, but it also requires fewer words.
  • Punctuation power
    • Ellipses have the power to create space, signify pauses, and therefore increase tension
  • Narrator point-of-view
    • One student suggested that first-person narration requires fewer words but helps readers understand the characters more easily.

From my standpoint, another benefit of asking students to compress familiar stories was the thought process that had to happen in order to prioritize important key events.

Once students crafted their mini-masterpieces, we also discussed the following questions:

Teachers Appreciation Week

Throughout the week, we were asking students to write six-word stories, and I shared the one I wrote for Cinderella.

Terrible life. Magical events. Happiness forever.

While I am not touting this as a masterpiece, compressing this story to so few words emphasized the importance of a problem with a solution/resolution when we think about stories and their elements.

Story compression did not require many instructional minutes, but the ratio of instructional value to the time it took was so worthwhile!