Oregon Writing Project

Lesson: One Sentence Stories

Writing One-Sentence Stories OWP@WU "How short can a story be and still be a story?

. . . But less can be more, we think: the meaningful glance more consequential that the long (but less intense, les informed) look or stare. These stories are not tricks, or trills on a flute; rather they are very short stage presentations or musical pieces that play to the full range of human sensibilities-some evoke mood while others provoke the intellect, some introduce us to people we're interested to meet, while others tell us of unusual but understandable phenomena in this world, and some of them do several of all of these things, the things good fiction of any length does." -James Thomas, ed., Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories

What Stories Can Do

We all read stories and tell one another stories to help make sense of the world, to entertain and to laugh together. Some of these stories can be amazingly short-even as short as one single sentence. The seeming paradox of the one-sentence story, the tempest in a teacup, the telling of a whole story in a single sentence, is the brief form that encourages playfulness in all students of writing. Teachable moments include opportunities to review semicolons, dashes, commas, colons, parenthetical phrases, ellipses, cumulative sentences, super sentences and introductory elements-among others. Students and teachers are encouraged to write together, trying their hands at these ultimate "flash" fictions.

Learning Objective

Writers learning to shape an engaging narrative in telling detail, familiarize with an array of appropriate conventions, create a variety of super sentences and revise their writing into their best words in the best order.

Super Sentences

Many young writers are led by their teachers through a series of activities leading to writing "super sentences." Jo Ellen Moore's work book, "Write a Super Sentence" published by Evan-Moor, 1997, is a useful workbook in this endeavor. Students are guided through scaffolded activities leading to writing sentences that tell who or what did what-when and where? I fly my kite-can become a super sentence. So a model might look like this: My blue kite soared over the tall Oregon white oak trees this afternoon after school. Notice how a super sentence is leading nicely toward a narrative.

Participial Phrases

When students get proficient at super sentences, they can add a participial phrase and get even closer to a narrative: My blue kite soared over the Oregon white oak trees this afternoon after school, lifting me off the ground and carrying me all the way home. Voila, a one-sentence story emerges. Don and Jenny Killgallon have published Sentence Composing for Elementary School, Heinemann, 2000, one in a series that leads through middle school and high school to college level sentences. Last summer in our Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University, we found the introductory elementary book plenty challenging for starting out. The Killgallons encourage the use of the trailing verb phrase or participial phrase, making what's often referred to as the "essay sentence," which provides a wealth of narrative detail in nonfiction and fiction writing alike. They use a wide variety of sentence generating activities including sentence scrambling, completion, expanding, combining and imitation, and their books are readily available online.

Here are a brief selection of illustrative cumulative sentences from the Killgallon workbook taken from contemporary authors-remember to have students find their own examples in classroom reading then, later, in their own writing during revision:

  1. "I closed my eyes again, thinking maybe I was dreaming." Theodore Taylor, The Cay
  2. "The snow swirled, blurring his vision." Lois Lowry, The Giver
  3. "That afternoon, a big man came and pried off the drain cover, grunting as he worked." Pam Conrad, The Tub People

Have students try their hands at imitating each of these three sentences.


By using a series of interesting writing prompts like these that my students and I have collected through the years, students can write each day for ten minutes or so, beginning a series of very short stories in the form of super sentences with trailing verb phrases:

a rainy night in Paris/in my dream of summer/I'm the one who/things momma don't allow/where were you last night?/I remember when/once I journeyed to/things I'm afraid to tell myself/how a story saves lives/what if?/reoccurring dread/a most evocative smell/your earliest memory/my favorite geography/living an endless summer/in my next story I'll have/a thank you note to water/through the eyes of a fish/standing on the water's edge/rivers contain a world underwater/river sounds remind me/tell me about wind and water/gliding water transported me/a time of intense fear.

Draft Stories Then Work Out the Puzzle of Punctuation

When the story idea first emerges in draft, I advise students to use as many sentences as they need to keep the flow of their quick writing going. They can always return later to edit the narrative into a one-sentence story. Students often revise best when they have a selection of several story starts in their writing journals-the results of several days of short writings and sharing story starts. Here is a quick list of punctuation rules which help young writers review useful punctuation. Notice that each rule is written in the form of the rule-so the cumulative sentence rule is a cumulative sentence and so on.

  1. Introductory Element: After a long introductory phrase, place a comma to signal the beginning of the main clause.
  2. Compound: A comma precedes a coordinating conjunction, and his comma signals that both clauses are independent.
  3. Cumulative: The trailing verb phrases of the cumulative or "essay" sentence move from the general to the specific, zooming in like a camera lens, revealing increasing detail.
  4. Dash: The dash can signal an appositive-renaming the aforementioned-or signal an interrupting phrase in the sentence.
  5. Dialogue: "Use commas aptly," said Mary, "because they are our friends."
  6. Semicolon: If you can't use a period, you can't use a semicolon; a semicolon joins two related independent clauses.
  7. Colon: Use a colon to introduce the following: a list, a series, a definition, a quotation or an explanation.

Sample Stories

I suggest that like any other writing assignment, the teacher sets the tone by joining in, writing with students. When I've written with students in past years, I've come up with the following one-sentence story examples-notice the repeated use of cumulative sentences:

Dunes: Leaving the wind behind at the surf, I walk steadily inland, wending my way among the mountainous dunes splayed out for fifty miles here along this world famous Oregon coast, rambling north and south, creeping grains on the wind, ever changing, always moving-even as I pick my way among them, searching for the rare solitude that only mountains of small, small stones can provide.

When Night Comes: The tectonic plates, floating in their great weight beneath Oregon, shudder in anticipation, responding to the thrum of one frog leaping in Crater Lake, the drop of one frog's egg to its cluster near Neskowin and the whisper between two Cascade Trail hikers, lovers who watch the blinking of rapidly receding galaxies overhead.

Painting Stories: One-sentence stories create a miniature world in a teacup, splashing magical, imagistic paint about like a union painter gone berserk, slinging bright colors at the page-lemon-bronze, iron-red-tomato and electric-blueberry-all those colors give the author the illusion that she's a grand master creator.

Letters: When his long-time lover and wife of sixty years died at eighty-three, he found in the back of her jewelry case a ribbon-tied bundle of mysterious and yellowed love letters from his childhood best friend; traveling back to the old country, he confronted his boyhood friend, now an old man himself-"I'm sorry, I just can't recall," his old friend wept.

Star Sand: "You know, Tom, I have something to show you at the beach this afternoon," She said as she flounced to the truck, swinging a weighted string and carrying a six inch magnifying glass in her other hand: "See this," she said later, holding the glass like Sherlock Holmes over the heavy end of her string-now coated in bits of dark sand-"My science teacher, Ms. Johanson, says that twenty per cent of these iron and nickel bits from the sea sand are miniature meteors; see the little melted craters!" she said, arching her eyebrows provocatively.

"I can write a one-sentence story," he said confidently, lifting his pen, setting it to paper, watching intently as letters to words to a long sentence stretched out along the purpled lines in his Mead journal, leading him steadily into the deep woods along the North Santiam, where he's hiked for days at a time, finding crawdads under river rocks, parboiling them to a delicious China red and savoring the snowy freshwater-lobster flesh-all the while his pen shuffling along at a good pace like his hiking boots along a well worn trail, one footfall, one word, leading confidently to the next.

Experiment Alongside Your Students

After reviewing super sentences and trailing verb phrases, consider trying out some of the prompts listed above with your students on multiple occasions. I've noticed that experienced students can often find a new one-sentence story in about five minutes of sustained freewriting. When one idea is complete, I ask them to immediately start another so they are writing continuously for the full five minutes. Then be sure to share around the room so students can experience one another's successes and learn new possibilities from their classmates. I usually share last so their voices are featured prominently before mine.

Submission Information

Have fun with this idea and please consider submitting yours and your students' stories to me at srjones24407@gmail.com. We will select the best stories and feature them on the www.Willamette/soe/owp website. Look there for next year's models and your selected students' work.

Annotated Short-Short Fiction Bibliography

Allen, Robert. Fast Fiction: Creative Fiction in Five Minutes. New York: Story Press, 1997. Allen's useful strategies for "creating the moment rendered in its wink of immediacy" is inspiring. She has great faith in the writer's ability to find and record a new story in five minutes. After several bouts of this brief writing, odds are there will be a couple stories worth the revision and discovery and creation of additional details. Allen has also collected many excellent examples of the short-short story with inspiring prompts like: a broken promise/something stolen/a party/something that hasn't happened yet/a child at play/a secret. You are invited to pick one and create a very short story all within five minutes.

Killgallon, Don and Jenny. Sentence Composing for Elementary School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000. This workbook presents a genius selection of sentence crafting exercises, including: imitating, matching, combining, unscrambling, and expanding. This book can easily be used as introductory activities for MS and HS-along with the others at MS, HS and college level.

Mills, Mark. Crafting the Very Short Story: An Anthology of 100 Masterpieces. New York: Prentice Hall, 2002. This is an outstanding collection of 100 short-short stories and 26 strategy essays on writing these brief stories.

Mukherjee, Wanda Wade, ed. Blink: Flash Fiction Before You can Ban an Eye. Wake Forest, NC: The Paper Journey Press, 2006. A fun new collection of short-shorts.

Shapard, Robert and James Thomas, eds. Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1986. An early anthology of short-short stories. __________. Sudden Fiction International: 60 Short-Short Stories. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. A wide-ranging worldwide anthology of very short stories. These are collected for adults, but careful selection can yield many stories suitable for younger readers. __________. Sudden Fiction (Continued): 60 New Short-Short Stories. New York: Norton, 1996. More of these wonderful stories. __________. Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories. New York: Norton, 2006. Brand new this Fall and the beat goes on.

Staley, Ann and Steve Jones, eds. Bowl of Stories III: Students & Teachers as Writers Anthology, 2005. Corvallis, Oregon: Casoria Woods Press, 2005. Third winning one-sentence story anthology of almost one hundred stories by students and teachers, sponsored by the OCTE and available on their website: octe.org.

Stern, Jerome, ed. Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories. New York: Norton, 1996. These stories are collected from entrants to the Florida State University's World's Best Short-Short Story Contests. These stories are varied and surprising, many written for an adult audience.

Wilson, Michael. Flash Fiction: How to Write, Revise and Publish Stories Less Than 1000 Words Long. College Station, Texas: Virtualbookworm.com, 2004. A useful handbook growing out of years of teaching flash fiction.

Thomas, James, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka, eds. Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories. New York: Norton, 1992. This is a fine collection of very short stories with many suitable for younger readers.

Steve Jones, 24407 Decker Road, Corvallis, OR 97333 / srjones24407@gmail.com Send us your best.