From Prompt, To Concept, To Microfiction
Guest Blog by Brandon Crilly
Lately I’ve been writing more and more microfiction, specifically using The Story Engine to spark ideas. I thought I’d walk you through the process for my most recent one, from drawing cards to finalizing the story.
(If you want to know more about microfiction generally, check out this great post by Christine Hanolsy.)
When I’m pulling from The Story Engine for a new story, I tend to grab a couple expansions and a booster and draw more cards than the guidebook suggests. One from each deck I’m using, typically, to give the potential for some cross-genre action. (This totally isn’t cheating, I’m sure.)
Recently I took the Fantasy Expansion: Written in Dragonfire and the Science Fiction Expansion: Written in the Light of Strange Worlds, plus the Booster Mythwalkers & Eternals (which is seriously one of my favorites) and drew a “Circle of Fate” prompt. From my initial set of character draws, the first that caught my eye was pyrokinetic – something I’ve never written about, so an immediate no-brainer. After considering my second character draw, I settled on dancer from the core deck. My engine and conflict draw gave me this:
How do you pair a pyrokinetic and a dancer? Especially for a microfiction story, which this was going to be. With the character motivations already provided, my mind turned to worldbuilding. Even though pyrokinetic comes from the Science Fiction Expansion: Written in the Light of Strange Worlds, my first thought was fantasy: the pyrokinetic becomes a mage, and the story writes itself. Except microfiction doesn’t mean “quick.” A richly imagined, nuanced world helps to charge those few words with layers of meaning.
Pondering and scribbling more notes brought me back to my cross-genre inclinations. Maybe the pyrokinetic isn’t a mage, but someone with what I started calling “elemental enhancements.” I settled on nanites, picturing this person with glowing orange veins who can twirl his fingers to light a candle or make afterimages in the air. The engine cards had given me love on the dancer’s side, but I could see that love going both ways – what’s more romantic than tracing beautiful images for the person you adore? (Take note, paramours: subtlety and softness are the trick.)
More important question: where’s my pyrokinetic tracing these images? What’s the dancer doing in this story? I turned to the conflict cards. The pyrokinetic can’t get close enough to the dancer to heal her (I’d decided at this point that the pyrokinetic is male and the dancer is female, but the final draft is much more ambiguous) because of some consequence from … society? Or maybe his people, who would be the ones exiling him? From that I got another spark: we’ve got two distinct societies in this near-future world, one more connected to the natural world. And the other? Logically, the dancer would come from a society that leans harder into cybernetics and tech, which suddenly gave me my clearest image of her: encased in polished platinum, posing on a perpetual stage to show off a designer’s work, as part of the contract for her enhancements.
At which point I had to check myself. Suddenly my dancer felt too close to that tired, negative stereotype of models or exotic dancers trapped in a profession because they have no other choice. How to avoid that and still isolate the dancer from the pyrokinetic? The key that helped me was the important duty in her conflict card. What if the price for the dancer’s platinum skin was willingly paid? For the dancer, this is an easy decision for the sort of body modifications she could never afford outright but has always dreamed of having. Meaning the story had to be told from her perspective, too.
The story felt incomplete – and too easy. Even when the dancer’s terms let her step off the stage, what about the pyrokinetic’s conflict? His desire to heal her loneliness (even if she’s happy with her choices) doesn’t protect him from the possibility of being exiled. Around these two, a solarpunk/environmental vibe took shape. Their world was broken but saved through tech, which some people used to become more in tune with nature, while others used it to stand completely apart. Unfortunately, these two branches of society don’t always trust each other or get along and aren’t supposed to mix (we all know that story). The pyrokinetic doesn’t care; he never liked his people anyway. But the dancer doesn’t want to take his people from him on a whim – after all, she’s only ever seen him from the stage, keeping her company with glowing designs instead of words, while everyone else sees a mannequin instead of a person. How strong is their connection, really? The dancer doesn’t know.
Which brought me the story’s final lines: “Maybe we can walk together, later, and pretend would it be like without the rules.”
A touch of sadness, maybe, but that’s what coalesced the story for me. A lot of the wider world I imagined can’t be explained in just over one hundred words, but the elements are there, feeding into every little thing the dancer says. Their circle of fate is informed by their choices and what’s out of their control, which I think makes for an excellent love story, in the end.
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon Crilly (he/him) has been previously published by Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, PULP Literature, and other markets. He reviews fiction for BlackGate.com, serves as a Programming Lead for Can*Con in Ottawa and cohosts the podcast Broadcasts from the Wasteland, described as “eavesdropping on a bunch of writers at the hotel bar.” You can find Brandon at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly.