Thursday, October 24, 2019

What is "not a story"

Thank you for writing such a helpful blog! I've learned a lot about the industry from you, as well as gained more confidence in myself (in spite of being a mere woodland creature). I've been following you for a while, though I tend to lurk more often than I participate in the comments.

I also really love reading the flash fiction entries because I learn a lot from your comments on them. One thing you say often for the honorable mentions is "not a story, but..."

Perhaps it's too obvious to write about it and I just need to do more homework, but I think it would be helpful if you explained what makes one entry a story and another not, even though they're both compelling. In longer form stories it's clear: there's a beginning, middle, and end with characters making choices that lead to growth. But in such short entries, there usually isn't an ending necessarily, and yet this one counts as a story and that one doesn't. Why?

I feel very small asking you to explain this, but it would be very helpful to me.

Thank you, and please forgive my running on my hamster wheel.

This is actually a very good question.
Let's use last week's contest for the examples.

There were three entries that got "not quite a story".

Here they are:

Not quite a story, but delightful, and oh by the way have you read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.

TS Rosenberg

"Welcome, folks! Here on the - "
"Whoa, the moon's GINORMOUS."
"Is Alaska down there? Wave to Grandma in Fairbanks, kids!"
"Hi, folks! Yes, the view is amazing, but first - "
"What's that sprawling green blotch? A holt?"
"The Sumatra rainforest. It's on the Algerian/Syrian border."
"Folks, please listen!"
"This place is too full of tourists."
"Duh, everyone’s a tourist up here."
"Everyone shut up, or I'll open the airlock and we'll all be sucked out! That's better. Welcome, folks! Here on the ISS observation deck, four panes of glass lie between us and the vacuum of outer space...."

I liked the energy and verve of the writing a lot.

It also uses one of my favorite premises: tossing miscreants out the airlock to keep the peace. I first heard this premise in the book I mentioned: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.

So, what would make this a story?
If the tour guide did push someone out of the airlock.
Only when something changes or gets revealed (as in a twist, the best kind of reveal) is it a story.

Not quite a story but inventive!

Anu Roy

You won’t know me. My name conjures up nothing. A blank. You stare at me all day but yet, don’t notice me. So let’s talk about me.

Because, well, it’s bloody entertaining.

To be fair, I can bank on the fact you think I’m useless. But if I disappear, you’ll lose your holt on English.

You see the space between words. In every sentence. Yup, that’s me. The name’s Blank.

I’m done being futile. Now, I have a mission – distancing two warring worlds. Putting space between them. See what I did there.

So I’m off to the Algerian/Syrian border.


I'm a total sucker for entries about punctuation, grammar and word play so this is right up my alley.

BUT, like TR Rosenberg above, no one goes out the airlock. Nothing changes, nothing is revealed. There is no twist.

What would have made this a story?
Finishing up the thread of the Algerian'/Syrian border in some clever twisty way.

Not quite a story, but holy moly,

Colin Smith

She was an Algerian/Syrian borderline psychopath. At least that’s how she introduced herself at the speed dating table. The space between us felt uncomfortably small.

She picked up a pencil and asked what I did.

“I’m a banker,” I said shuffling my chair, making the space bigger. “What about you?”

“I hunt,” she said, fixing me with thirsty eyes, testing the pencil point on her thumb. “In the holts.”

“Fair enou—” The pencil flashed by my face. I turned. An impaled roach fell to the floor.

“Call me,” she said, sliding her card.

I did.

Twenty years ago today.

Colin's always got something interesting going on.

This isn't a story because the fact that she's an Algerian/Syrian borderline psychopath (one of the great uses of prompt words) has no further reveal. There's no twist of expectations or events. 

The other thing to remember when reading these flash fiction entries and my comments, is that this is all entirely subjective, and not just cause only one person is commenting. Comments can also depend on mood, and time of day. 

There is no gold standard on what makes a story good, but what makes something a story is a change, or a twist or a reveal.

When you're writing, ask yourself: what has changed here? It can be something for the character, OR something for the reader.


Kitty said...

Thank you! This was very helpful.

Mister Furkles said...

For me, every story is about conflict. It needs setup and resolution too. The challenge is getting it all into 100 words--which I can't do. These three samples are good for a hook; we want to know more; we want the complete setup and to get into the conflict.

Setup-conflict-resolution only makes it a story. It may be a poor story though. You need so much more to get it to a good story.

Steve Forti said...

This is always a challenge for these contests. In so few words, it's often easy to wind up with a vignette rather than a story. Hell, pretty sure I did so myself last week. If it's a scene, a moment, a snippet of a larger story, then it's "not a story". Doesn't have all the elements of plot, particularly a conclusion. The conclusion can be open-ended, but it should satisfy as complete.

Colin Smith said...

I said it before and I'll say it again, even after Steve just said it: the "must be a story" rule is often harder to achieve in 100 words than using the prompt words.

I knew I was riding the fence with this one and really wanted another 100 words to play it out a bit more. I thought maybe if this was the guy looking back telling the story of how he met his wife, I'd get away with it. But no. I left the Algerian/Syrian thing as the gun on the mantle. And Janet's right. Not only would it have been a story if I'd done something more with that, it would have been a more interesting story.

Dang she's good at her job!

TS Rosenberg said...

Ah, and here I thought I'd cracked it when I changed the ending from two people wondering why the tour guide was crying, to the tour guide taking charge.

Okay, next time, someone's going out the airlock.

Could be Felix Buttonweezer. Could be Robert Heinlein. But it won't be the OP, who's brave enough to ask "what am I not understanding?"

Jill Warner said...

I took a creative writing class in college. One unit was on short stories and my instructor frequently commented on how my submissions weren't actually stories. Nothing actually changed--my MC's never made a choice. (I was convinced I sucked at fiction by the end of the class, but that's another story.) Now I ask myself what changes happen because of the MC's actions every time I sit down to write.

CynthiaMc said...

What helps me when I do these contests is I do a quick BME (beginning-middle-end) check when I'm playing with ideas.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I am really glad the OP asked this. It is worth thinking about for any length of fiction.

Pericula Ludus said...

Thank you so much, OP, for having the guts to ask! I have been wondering for a while and it's a big thing that keeps me from actually attempting the flash fiction contests (the other being my rather prolix prose plus permanent periphrasis).

Lennon Faris said...

So my devil's advocate mind is going.

Colin's still seems like a story. The premise is that he is a normal guy dating, and meets a creepy albeit fascinating partner. The expectation is that he is going to be the next little roach on the end of her pencil. Or, more likely, he will run and not call and never see that psychopath again.

But, then he tells us that they fell in love and got married and are a strong/ lasting duo. I mean, he doesn't say it outright but that last sentence conveys it.

So I guess my opinion is that the story happens in the unseen part, but it still happens.

Hey, I just got stabbed by a pencil! No, it's a shark tooth! OK I'm scramming!

(BTW this isn't me contesting anything. Just being devil's advocate!)

french sojourn said...

Watches from the shadows and notices a dorsal tip serpentine through Karkoon bay towards the Devils advocate.

Craig F said...

Thank you, though I doubt it will improve my flash fiction. I think my problem is that my plots get too involved and don't translate into 100 words.

This also applies to the query. In many ways they are akin to FF. Coherency of the plot arc is tantamount. John Cusick was talking about queries when he wrote this, but it is also relevant to FF, short stories, or full length novels.

April Mack said...

So I knew scene progression meant something had to change, but I thought that meant just for the characters and that’s why I got stuck. But I see you're saying the change can be for the reader, too. That makes so much sense! I get it now. Thank you for answering the question!

Karen McCoy said...

Agree with April in that I didn't think something could change for the reader. Knowing that definitely changes things for this Reider.

Also agree with the formidable Steve. Finding that twist within a tiny canvas of 100 words is often tricky. And even when I find it, I don't always think my story packs enough punch.

I read, and re-read Colin's reminds me of some great advice I received at a recent conference. Rather than "a thing that happens, and then another thing happens..." it's helpful to insert the word therefore. "This happens, therefore, this other thing happens." Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park and Book of Mormon fame) say it best:

But and Therefore

Theresa said...

This is a very instructive discussion. It also reminds me of an episode of The Big Bang Theory when Amy comments that Raiders of the Lost Ark was okay but didn't have much of a story. For her, everything that happened would have happened anyway even if Indiana hadn't been around.
I can't post a live link, but it's on YouTube:

Joseph S. said...

Stories or not, I enjoyed all three entries.

For an excellent old time radio program (X-1) about whether a woman will be ejected through an airlock, listen to "Cold Equations."

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Some of my favorite entries are the 'not quite a story' entries because they can be less forced and there's a little more flexibility to just do something really cool. And I know they're gonna be good when they're not quite a story but Janet calls them out as excellent anyway.

I always heard that a piece of writing isn't a story until something goes wrong. Remembering that always helps me with flash-fiction (and normal length fiction!) but that still doesn't make it much easier.

Katja said...

OP, please DO NOT, NOT feel small! I'm SO glad you've asked this cause sometimes I'm also not sure WHY the entries aren't quite stories. So if you still feel small (and you shouldn't!), I'm small together with you ;).

Thank you Janet for these great explanations. I think I did understand why the first two examples weren't stories, but, like the author, I wasn't quite sure why Colin's wasn't a story. For the reasons he mentioned.

I guess it's this sequence-of-events-thingie. If someone has already said this, I apologise for repeating it. I admit I only skimmed through the comments today because I've got a stinking cold, and am only reading with one eye. Yeah, the eyeball ache even... one is also blocked up with that sh1te. Oh yes, it's possible...

Just Jan said...

Thank you to OP and Janet for this post. It's a tricky subject for me, too, and I appreciate the extra explanation and examples. The conclusion is always the hardest part for me.

Barbara Etlin said...

Thanks for asking this question. OP! I've wondered about his, too. And thanks for the very informative answer, Janet!

Kae Ridwyn said...

Count me as one of the too-scared-to-ask-this-question hamster-wheel-spinners, because I remember our Queen answering this question before. This post's depth of detail (especially with examples for clarification) certainly makes a difference; I think I'm starting to get a handle on 'what is / what isn't a story' now. Thank you, OP, for having the courage to ask. And THANK YOU, dear QOTKU, for continuing to enlighten us woodland creatures on a daily basis!

KDJames said...

OP, this used to drive me crazy too, until I decided it didn't matter (to me) and I was just going to write whatever came to me, story or not. I suck at writing short pieces and most of my early entries were maybe a scene. Maybe not even that. But it's like anything else-- if you practice, you eventually get better. And after a while Janet started to occasionally refer to an entry or two of mine as a "story." [YAY!]

For me, these are not so much about trying to tell a story, although it's nice if that happens, as they are exercises in being concise. They've been incredibly helpful with that (not that you can tell from my rambling comments).

One thing I noticed early on is that a LOT of the stories ended with death, and that seemed to make it a story. That resolution in a mere 100 words kind of bothered me (clearly, I'm not cut out to be a crime writer) and I decided to try not to write mine that way. Definitely makes it harder. But also more interesting to write, I think.

Fearless Reider said...

OP, you're the brave classroom hero who dared to ask -- you have the thanks of a grateful reef! I'm usually drawn to flash fiction entries that are more vignette than story, as often those writers have used more of their precious word budget on writing that's snappy or lush. When those entries manage to tell a compelling story, too, I'm thoroughly impressed. That happens much too often. Quit it.

I also love entries where the story happens in the gaps, in the space between writer and reader, and when the change comes from something more unusual than classic conflict. Timothy Lowe's and flashfriday's entries from 10/4 are great examples of stories that use repeating patterns and the action of time (and rising stakes, in Timothy's story) to produce change in the reader's understanding. Tricky and brilliant stuff.

NLiu said...

I agree with Lennon: I thought Colin's entry was a story. It set up the expectation that this was a "worst date ever" story, then maybe a murder story, then the narrator reveals he actually called her and it's a "how I met my wife" story. So there was a decision (he called her, though that was implied rather than explicit) and a twist ending (they lived happily ever after and she didn't take his eyes out with a pencil).

Show how much I know, eh?

I found KDJames' comment fascinating. Can't remember who it was who said all real stories are about death, but... Yeah.