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Writing a One-Sentence Story; Exercise in Creativity or Frustration?

Updated on November 8, 2012
Portrait of Felix Feneon
Portrait of Felix Feneon | Source

Can you really do more with less?

A little while ago I read this hub about using a single sentence to tell a story. It didn't tell a complete story, mind you, but it did (or was supposed to) set the stage so you would want to find out more.

The upside to this is that if you do it at all well, that exercise in frustration known as the "Opening Sentence" will hook people from the first. Consider this classic gem:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Poetry, isn't it? Of course, Charles Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities is filled with such wonders from beginning to end. And a poetic first line can paper over a multitude of deficiencies in the early chapters. But on the other hand, a bad opening line can really kill a book. Let's take this equally famous (though in a different way) example:

It was a dark and stormy night.

Think you know that one? Sure! You've read it a thousand times as Snoopy sits on top of his dog house, pounding out his latest deathless masterpiece, only to give up after a page. It's actually the opening sentence to Madaleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time. (And I bet you thought it was something else!) The actual opening sentence that a lot of people know about comes from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. Here it is:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Nothing like overdoing it a bit, eh? Actually, though I've never read the book myself, several articles I've read about how to construct an opening sentence say that the novel isn't bad. But who wants to keep going after they've slogged through that swamp of an opening sentence? Not me!

Which brings up one of the pitfalls of the One Sentence Story, namely that in an effort to get as much into as little as possible, you make a run-on sentence. You know, when it's actually three or four sentences, but instead of periods the author will use commas and semicolons. As someone who dreams of getting his novel published, I understand the allure of this, but trust me, it doesn't work.

Really, what I'm reminded of more than anything else is the faits divers, the old French journalistic practice of writing a little story about murder, mayhem or death that had actually happened, in three lines. Rediscovered recently, the anarchist and art critic (that line is used in every single description of him, if he were still alive he should get it trademarked) Felix Feneon. Here are a couple of examples:

Mme Vivant, of Argenteuil, failed to reckon with the ardor
of Maheu, the laundry's owner. He fished the desperate
laundress from the Seine.

Finding her son, Hyacinthe, 69, hanged, Mme Ranvier, of
Bussy-Saint-Georges, was so depressed she could not cut
him down.

And my personal favorite:

Scheid, of Dunkirk, fired three times at his wife. Since he
missed every shot, he decided to aim at his mother-in-law,
and connected.

Ah, the elegance of economy! If I could figure out how to write like that on a regular basis, how happy I would be!

The point is, keep it simple. It's possible to pack a lot into a one sentence story, but it's possible to put too much story into one sentence.

It's a great exercise, and one I highly recommend! Have at it!

Here are a few attempts of my own, I bet you can do better!

*Missing a shoe and her skirt torn in three places, Sarah stared at the ravine in despair.

*Todd's tailored suit and perfect hair made Bonnie think, "Too much red meat."

*Tim was a great kid and a straight A student but cars were not meant to go 80 mph while upside down.

*Slimy, disgusting and gross were three adjectives that flashed through little Jamal's mind when he saw the dog salivating.

copyright (C) 2012 christopher w neal all rights reserved

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    • Chris Neal profile image

      Chris Neal 4 years ago from Fishers, IN

      Thanks, Beth!

      (I just couldn't bring myself to, you know, respond with a run-on sentence of my own since that could very well be perceived as, you know, like, overkill which I certainly wouldn't want anyone to accuse me of not that anyone has been accusing me of it although I'm reminded of the Dreyfus affair and the famous headline "J'accuse!" and the way my kids stare at me accusatorily when they don't get what they want and what were we talking about?)

    • profile image

      Beth37 4 years ago

      Dude, I hate run on sentences as much as I hate overly descriptive sentences, as they remind me of the beginning of Gone with the Wind, which although is my favorite movie ever, I couldn't abide the ridiculously long description of the freaking trees that lead up to their driveway, which is all said only to lead up to the fact that I wanted to tell you that you are a very good writer, which I say in all sincerity, smiley face.

    • Chris Neal profile image

      Chris Neal 5 years ago from Fishers, IN

      Arun Kanti -

      I'm not an English teacher but that was a very, ah, interesting sentence!

    • ARUN KANTI profile image

      ARUN KANTI CHATTERJEE 5 years ago from KOLKATA

      While appreciating the unique concept and getting the needed impetus I have tried to build up such a story. Kindly let me have your comments. Thank you.


      My school friend Joy while studying Management in the U K in the seventies came once to Kolkata on summer holidays and had a slice of a fish bone stuck in his throat causing immense trouble for which relations and friends wanted him to go for an urgent operation for relief but I, though not a physician, took the job as a challenge and requesting the on lookers to wait for a jiffy with patience poured tube well water in an apparent empty homoeo bottle of Silicea 30 which my friend took without any qualms causing an immediate miraculous recovery returning a smile to my dear friend, putting to shame the crowd who were skeptical about the line of treatment, earning a big ‘thank you’ from all and sundry and establishing the fact that alternative mode of treatment in many cases can effectively stimulate temporary and permanent recovery of an ailing person.

    • Chris Neal profile image

      Chris Neal 5 years ago from Fishers, IN

      SarayLinny -

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Glad you liked it!

    • SarahLinny profile image

      Sarah Carson 5 years ago from Hatfield, PA

      I like this concept. The one sentence story is a fun exercise. Good discussion of the difference between the one sentence story and the first sentence of a story.