I like when artists are forced to confine their work to strict parameters. Ironically, I think there’s something freeing about stripping away unfettered freedom and seeing what you can do within an established template. As such, the 53-Word Story Contest has become something of a white whale for me. It’s a weekly competition in which writers are given a thematic prompt and a limit of 53 words, no more, no less. At the end of each week, one winner is published on the 53-Word Story site, with a chance of future publication in an anthology.
53 is not a lot of words, obviously, and spinning a satisfying narrative within that space is a heck of a task. I’ve submitted a number of times and have yet to win. I intend to keep plugging away. In the meantime, since the contest is on hiatus for the summer and there really aren’t many other venues for 53-word stories, I figured I’d post my rejects here, along with the prompts that inspired them. Some are better than others. Take a look at them if you’d like to see how I deal with tight parameters. (And try to seek out the great Patricia Ann McNair’s multiple winning entries if you’d like to see it done right.)
Prompt: Write a 53-word story about waking up.
When Mr. Hoiberg assigned “The Metamorphosis” Haley realized her purpose. She stole her dad’s Ambien. She studied Zen concentration. She pored over books on occultism and entomology. Every morning she awoke from uneasy dreams and rushed to the mirror. And every morning she was crushed by the same reflection, so terribly, tediously human.
Prompt: Write a 53-word story about the North and the South.
You wade into the Mississippi, the chill of a Minnesota morning dappling your body with goose bumps. The cola-brown water envelops you, washing your detritus downstream. 1200 miles away I sit cross-legged on the New Orleans levee, remembering your touch as I patiently wait for the river to deliver a trace of you.
Prompt: Write a 53-word story including the words “road” and “aspirin” in which someone is in danger.
The baggie opened midair, pills shattering into rainbow dust in the rearview mirror. Alan pulled over. The cruiser blared past, bound for some unknown crime up the road.
“Can you get high if you take enough aspirin?” Greg asked after a long pause.
“Fucking hope so,” Alan muttered. The sweats were starting already.
Prompt: I don’t remember the prompt for this one.
Susan shielded her eyes with her palm and squinted into the morning sun. The billboard over her bus stop read, in giant black letters, “I EXIST.” She glanced across the street. A small crowd peered up at an identical sign reading, “YOU EXIST.”
“I don’t need this kind of pressure today,” Susan muttered.
Prompt: Write a 53-word story about someone going up.
I hear him striding up behind me in the parking garage, baggie of fruit slices crinkling in his grip. Even his footsteps sound lean and lanky. I swear he smirks as I stop at the elevator and he lopes ahead to the stairs.
One day he’ll have a heart attack on those stairs.
Prompt: Write a 53-word story in which someone is breaking something in.
“How old?” The cashier nodded toward my son.
“Two last Thursday,” I smiled.
“Fun age. My daughter’s six.” He paused. “Was. She was six.”
“No, I gotta get used to it. My daughter was. My daughter was. My daughter was.”
He walked away with my $5.57 in change. I didn’t follow.
Prompt: Write a 53-word story in which a character stands up for something they believe in.
All around the stadium they rose, old men in “NAVY” caps, boomers in pea-green jackets, young guys in Vikings t-shirts. On the sidelines players clasped helmets over hearts. “America the Beautiful” began to swell.
“Dad, veterans are supposed to stand up,” I whispered.
He stared straight ahead. “Sometimes sitting down is standing up.”
Jesus, Ira. These are incredible! So moving, so tight, so very 53-word perfect. If I were in charge….
Thanks, Patty. I can’t ask for a better endorsement than that.