The Pleas of the Leaves (or how writing fiction is just improv on the page)

Image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto from Pixabay

Last November, in an attempt to push myself to try new creative things, I entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction contest.

This is a fiction contest where, at the designated start time, participants are sent their assignment, which includes the genre they are supposed to write in, an action that has to take place, and a word they must include in the story, and they all write a story. The top writers in their groups move on for two more rounds, until a winner is crowned.

Oh, and did I mention participants have 24 hours to write their story?

Here’s the thing. I don’t write fiction. OK, well, I do, sort of. As part of my “write like a mad scientist for the first draft” practice, I often will ask friends for three random words, set a timer, and then use those words as prompts to write anything that comes to mind during the designated free writing time.

Often, it’s some weird story that comes from out of nowhere, something that if I was trying to write it would never appear. I just “Yes And” whatever comes out (improv has improved my writing as well as my life), and I rarely edit those mad scientist drafts. They go into a file I pull the out once in a while and think, “This would make a great story,” panic at the thought of having to actually write the story, and promptly put it all back in a drawer. I do, however, share them with my besties and creative cheerleaders Roberta Gore and Carrie Anne Noble, two accomplished fiction writers.

“You do write fiction, Joanne,” they keep telling me, but I still disagree.  To me, a fiction writer plots story lines and crafts characters and pays attention to themes and irony and other literary devices. I just splash something on the page and leave it to fend for itself.

My non-fiction career? Not a problem. I can pen a fabulous feature story, spin a delightful humor column, muse poetically in an essay. I have a few awards to prove I’m pretty good at that.

But making stuff up and creating worlds? Not really my thing. (Except on the improv stage. Are you noticing a theme here?)

So anyway, back to the contest.

The contest entry fee was $25, and every participant receives feedback on their piece, whether they move on to the next round or not. That sounded like a good deal to me.

Here’s the wrinkle: I thought I had entered the Flash Fiction contest, where entries had to be 500 words or less. When I saw the assignment I realized I actually entered was the Micro Flash Fiction contest, where entries were limited to 250 words.

Oh boy.

At 11:59 PM on that Friday night in November I got my assignment – Group 32, genre “science fiction”, action “getting plastic surgery”, word “please” – and went directly to bed with the plan to sleep on the words and wake fresh to write, hopefully dreaming the whole story during the night, thus saving me the trouble of having to create a world and tell a story in it, in now less than 24 hours.

I did wake Saturday morning with a germ of an idea, about a man named Mark having plastic surgery to remove war scars, because in future societies everyone removed anything that made them remember bad times. Only my protagonist (that’s a fiction word, right?) decides in the end to have more scars added, so no one who looks at him could ever forget the atrocities of war.

For the record, I still really like this idea.

But as I wrote my mad scientist draft, Mark actually turned out to be a botanist (who knew?), and well, the story veered off in a different direction. (Apparently characters do that sort of thing in fiction writing.) It wasn’t where I thought the idea as going to go, but it’s where it went so I spent all evening Saturday refining it and by midnight had something I felt pretty good about.

In hindsight, what worked for me (and what I teach when I lead creative workshops) was simply applying the principles of improv to what I put on the page.

I “Yes Anded” every weird idea and welcomed mistakes as gifts. (At one point I wrote “fern” and thought, “OK, so apparently there’s a fern in this story” and sure enough, there was.) I let myself build an environment that I could see, feel, taste, smell and then let myself live in it. (I was at the doctor’s office this week and sitting in the softly lit room with the paper exam table covering gently moving in the breeze, I thought, “Yup, this is where my story happened.”) I let each thing I wrote be an honest response to the thing before it rather than worrying about where it was going . I focused only on what was in front of me until time was up, rather than worrying about what was right or wrong or what anyone else might be doing, and then I hit send and let it go.

Was it perfect? No. Did I have more ideas? Yes. But none of that mattered. Much like our team does during an improv show, I created something in the time allotted and then moved on.  (Bow, applause, who wants to go out for drinks?)

And you know what? It worked! (Open the wine!)

Out of 5,400 participants in the first round of this contest, I’m one of the 1200 moving on to round two!

The best part is that I got some excellent feedback from the judges, which I’ll share, along with the story, at the end of this post.  Worth every penny of the entry fee. (I feel like judge 1751 really got me and gave me a brilliant idea to expand the story.)

Round two starts at 11:59 PM on Friday night; I’ll get my next assignment and then I’ll have to pen another 250 word piece by 11:59 PM Saturday night. (Thankfully, I had blocked off the date on the calendar, just in case.)

And now, for your reading pleasure – don’t blink, it’s only 250 words – is The Pleas of the Leaves.


Genre: science fiction
Action: getting plastic surgery
Word: please

The Pleas of the Leaves
by Joanne Brokaw

Mark watched as the plastic surgeon left the room, brushing past the cluster of ferns on her way to prepare the regenerative serum she would use to erase the scar under Mark’s left eye.

The scar was a reminder of an adolescent stand Mark had taken against his ax-wielding father in defense of a beloved apple tree. His defiant pleas resulted only in severe punishment. But, touching the spot now, Mark remembered how the tree had rewarded his efforts by toppling with a crack and a thud upon his father’s head.

Years later Mark eagerly accepted an offer to join the crew of the Verdant Environmental Space Lab, whose mission was the propagation of symbiotic relationships between humans and plant life. Upon arrival, the renowned botanist was horrified to learn his assignment was instead horticultural research for the advancement of warfare. Plants exploited for weaponry.

Distressed by the deception but with no immediate recourse available, Mark went to work, listening to the pleas of the leaves and quietly keeping their secrets to himself.

It was the ferns who pointed him to their root toxin, which, ingested prior to regenerative cell therapy, would offer the patient the ability to produce a single, poisonous exhalation strong enough to asphyxiate the human occupants of a mid-sized space station.

Mark swallowed imperceptibly as the doctor returned with the syringe, the ferns waving gently in her wake. “Ready?” she asked.

“Yes, please.” Mark nodded to his friends, inhaled, and prepared to repay his debt.


Judges’ feedback:

{2032} It is a compelling idea. A good story arc, as well.
{1751) We can’t help but understand Mark. We know plants aren’t made to weapons. We know that he’s willing to risk his life for the planet. And you know, we all really feel that even if he is successful, we wouldn’t exactly mind. There’s an almost spiritual purpose to Mark’s plan. Great job.
{1984} The theme of this piece is strong as Mark has a very clear love for nature that permeates the story from beginning to end. The revenge narrative was nice and the way in which Mark uses the plants to do it is interesting.

{2032} In a format of only 250 words, each sentence is crucial to developing the plot and narrative. What was the purpose of describing how the tree fell on Mark’s father’s head? I would have preferred some insight into how Mark acquired the ability to “converse” with plants.
Also wondered if this was a suicide mission, as Mark is also human and I would imagine he is on the space station.
Consider using dialogue. It has great power to unlock character and provides detail in a more concise manner than “telling.”.
{1751) Ultimately, I have to ask this: how does Mark know there is not another member of the crew who is not like himself? If he’s on the crew, another nature lover could be. And if his plan works, then they will also die, and so will Mark. Does he consider this? I wonder if you might address this but its only a suggestion.
{1984} Much of this plot is told to the reader rather than shown to the reader through action or dialogue. The only real action that takes place is the interaction at the end with the doctor as Mark presumably prepares to release root toxin for the sake of plants everywhere.

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