Maybe you’re writing a 140,000-word epic about a time-traveling Wookie who kills Hitler and invents the polio vaccine. Or you’re cranking out 500-word stories for a Paper of News.
Less is always, always more.
Nobody complains about a speech being too short, or a movie ending too soon. Always leave the audience wanting more, and always cut whatever you can. A word, a sentence, an entire scene that’s repetitive because we already saw the Wookie find that double-bladed lightsaber which she used to impress the British major-general and let her board the first landing craft at Normandy.
It works in the opposite direction, too. Headlines and hooks can’t be 100 words–you’re talking a sentence or two. Pitches, blurbs, dialogue, just about everything you can think of benefits from stripping away the fat to reveal sleek, practical, essential muscle.
Once you strip it all away, it becomes clear how great writing works and bad writing falls off the Cliff of Despair and tumbles into the Pit of Absolute Rubbish.
The easiest places to see this? Two sentence stories.
Check out these five, then we’ll chat.
Number 1, The Classic
I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.”
I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”
Author unknown, and yes, this version is a little wordy. Let’s cut it down.
“Daddy, check for monsters under my bed.”
I peeked under the cover and my son stared back as he whispered, “Daddy, there’s somebody on my bed.”
Every father’s nightmare. You’ll do anything to protect your sons and daughters. How would you handle this impossible choice?
“Now be careful, that line of rock salt is the only thing keeping them out,” the man said, welcoming my group into his refuge.
“Sea salt,” I clarified, “sea salt keeps us out.”
This is good, right? A great setup for a horror movie. Bring it.
Bullets flew through the mall, ripping clothes to shreds.
In the chaos, no one noticed the mannequins bleeding.
Did not see this coming. At all. Well played, Professor Biscuit.
The sound of my son calling for my help grew fainter and fainter.
As the batteries in my hearing aides died, I realized it would soon be impossible for me to find him in time.
The first three are fantasy and unrealistic.
This one is quite real, and I believe it’s scarier because of it.
“I forgot to grab something, I’ll be right back,” said Mom.
As she rounded the corner, out of sight, the cashier began ringing up our groceries.
Here we go: comedy instead of horror. We’ve all felt that stab of panic as our wife, husband, son or mother leaves you in line at Safeway or Costco “to grab something real quick,” then you stand there, waiting forever as the person in front of you finishes checking out and you empty your cart onto the belt slower and slower as there is absolutely no sign of them, and the checker starts giving you the side eye because there are four people waiting behind your slow butt, so what is your problem, so where are there, did they get lost or kidnapped, and should you leave the line to save them from a serial killer only to get embarrassed when they show up with that bottle of white wine they were looking for? WHERE ARE THEY, AND SHOULD WE CALL THE POLICE?
So yeah, this one is funny, and a little horrific, because we have all been there. And will be there again.
What two-sentence stories can teach us all
Every genre of writing tends to get wrapped up in its own pet jargon, theories, practices, and templates.
A news story has to use the inverted pyramid. Every press release needs a first-graf lede, then a quote in the second graf. Detective heroes are alcoholic loner rebels paired up with a square sidekick who has a family.
Two-sentence stories toss all of that and return us to the basics.
The first sentence is a setup, making us curious about what happens next.
In the second sentence, we get the payoff.
Comedians are doing the same thing, which is why most jokes are two-sentences. All you need is a setup and a payoff.
Sure, it helps to add more flourishes, and a longer story–or joke–can have a greater payoff.
Look again at those four examples. There isn’t a single name to any character, no description of their age, hair, face, body, backstory. Zero.
Because you don’t need those things to generate interest.
Do some two-sentence stories. A joke, a horror story, a shocking idea. Whatever.
Then take whatever you’re writing and boil it down to two sentences. Setup and payoff.
Note: making each sentence 400 words is not okay, Cheaty McCheatypants.