In an ideal world, there would never be a deadline when you set out to write a story. But in the real world, time is of the essence.
Maybe you only have a chance to write during your lunch break. Maybe you forgot about that short story assignment that’s due to your English teacher in one hour. Or maybe you’re a famous sci-fi author who’s been challenged to write a short story on television in front of a live studio audience in just 20 minutes.
That’s the situation Isaac Asimov found himself in, and the result is now a classic of short fiction.
As The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction reported:
“At 8:00 in the evening of August 21, 1957, Isaac Asimov appeared on Boston’s educational channel, WGBH-TV, as part of a panel discussing means of communicating science. His fellow panelists were John Hansen, a technical writer of directions for using machinery, and [author] David O. Woodbury. The latter suggested, as a gag, that Asimov should then and there write a story to illustrate his means of communication. … Asimov plunged straight ahead and, under TV cameras and lights, wrote a story and read it before the half-hour program ended at 8:30.”
The result was “Insert Knob A in Hole B,” a witty little tale about a pair of space station residents flummoxed by piles of unassembled equipment with poor instructions. At just 286 words, it fit on a single page of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which published the story with no edits a few months after it was written.
How did Asimov write a story from scratch in just 20 minutes? And can you learn to do it? You bet you can! These three simple tricks are guaranteed to take the pressure off and leave you with a short story you can be proud of.
1. Take a moment to prepare
Contrary to appearances, the writing challenge didn’t catch Asimov completely by surprise: “Asimov later admitted to some preparation prior to the interview, as he suspected that other panel members might make such a request.”
Don’t plunge right in, scribbling madly, one eye on your notebook and the other on the clock. Spend few seconds brainstorming some ideas. What do you want to write about? What tone does your story require? Is there a particular genre you’re interested in trying? How do you hope your reader feels after finishing your story? The answers to these questions will help you decide whether you’ll be spending the next 1,200 seconds drafting a Lovecraftian tale of horror set in a 19th-century mental asylum, or a giddy romance about a bumbling dog-walker who finds love in sunny L.A.
2. Include familiar elements
Rather than come up with original characters out of thin air, Asimov opted to use his fellow panelists, John Hansen and David O. Woodbury, as his protagonists. And the theme of his story — the fallibility of technical communication in a scientific endeavor conducted in the real world — played directly off the panel’s theme of “means of communicating science,” as well as Hansen’s day job as a technical writer of documents explaining how to use machinery.
By evoking people his audience could see and centering his story on a topic already known to the viewers, Asimov was able to devote the bulk of his 20 minutes of writing time to delineating his story’s plot, setting, and main conflict.
Albert Einstein, the Eiffel Tower, a cup of black coffee, a traffic jam at dawn — instantly identifiable characters, settings, objects, and situations like these are compositional shortcuts that will get your reader immediately immersed in your story. Your goal is to skimp on unnecessary introductory text where you can, to allow time to lavish detail where it counts. But be careful: While archetypes and literary tropes are great tools when you’re low on time, stereotypes and clichés are not.
3. Follow the three-part joke structure
You’ve got less than half an hour. Don’t try to tell a fully fleshed-out story complete with the traditional hero’s journey, side characters, and a comprehensively realized conflict. Instead, use the traditional three-part storytelling structure frequently employed by joke writers.
Your story will consist of three distinct parts: a set-up, elaboration on the situation, and a punchline or payoff. Keep in mind, your story doesn’t have to be funny. But following the three-part structure will ensure it’s coherent, clearly structured, and not an aimless Grandpa Simpson anecdote. Remember, you only have 20 minutes — the clock is ticking!
Here’s how it works in Asimov’s story.
The set-up: Drop your reader directly into the setting, introducing the protagonist and what they want. In “Insert Knob A in Hole B,” this plays out in just two sentences:
“Dave Woodbury and John Hansen, grotesque in their spacesuits, supervised anxiously as the large crate swung slowly out and away from the freight-ship and into the airlock. With nearly a year of their hitch on Space Station A5 behind them, they were understandably weary of filtration units that clanked, hydroponic tubs that leaked, air generators that hummed constantly and stopped occasionally.”
Elaboration: Now it’s time to introduce the conflict. This can be an internal conflict, a good ol’ “man vs. nature” showdown, or a wily villain. Your conflict should relate directly to the theme of your story. And, in this section of your tale, a possible resolution of the conflict and thematic conclusion should be suggested. For Asimov, this was simple and straightforward:
“All equipment had to be assembled at the station itself with clumsy hands, inadequate tools and with blurred and ambiguous direction sheets for guidance. Painstakingly Woodbury had written complaints to which Hansen had added appropriate adjectives, and formal requests for relief of the situation had made its way back to Earth. And Earth had responded. A special robot had been designed, with a positronic brain crammed with the knowledge of how to assemble properly any disassembled machine in existence.”
The punchline: This is the payoff that the set-up and elaboration have been building to — the big revelation, the plot twist, the unavoidable conclusion, or the moral of the story.
Asimov opted for a wry, ironic jab at his fellow panelists. A crate containing the miracle robot arrived, his heroes eagerly opened it, and to their astonishment … “there within it were five hundred separate pieces — and one blurred and ambiguous direction sheet for assemblage.”
Ready to write? There are 1,440 minutes in a day — at Asimov’s rate, you can churn out 72 stories in the next 24 hours!
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.