When is a story not a story?

I’ve been reading a lot of flash fiction recently as part of the “read it if you want to write it” theory. Most of the works I’m reading are online rather than published hard copies in magazines, but that’s simply for financial reasons (I wish I could afford to subscribe to all of the magazines!).

I’ve been trying to read the pieces more critically; to learn how to improve my own writing, rather than to be critical of others. It’s been really useful and it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of my own work. But on several occasions, I’ve read a published piece – sometimes it’s even a competition winner, or has been lauded by other people – and I’ve found myself thinking but I don’t understand what’s happening here.

A lot of these pieces of fiction are not what I would call a story. They’re definitely fiction – at least I assume so – but many of them seem lack two of the three things I feel are essential to a story: conflict and change. The third thing is ‘character’, which they often have in abundance.

I’ve written a lot of pieces like this myself in the past, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with them; I’m just not sure they count as stories. I invariably agree that they’re well-written, but they seem more like vignettes, or character studies to me, sometimes almost more like poetry than prose. I understand that it can be hard to get conflict and change in a hundred words (or less!) but surely that’s what makes it a story?

Maybe I’m just missing the point – after all, it’s called ‘flash fiction’, not ‘flash stories’!

As always, I’d love to hear what you think, and whether you agree with me or not, especially if you’re a flash fiction writer.

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