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.
"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!
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,
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.
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.