As someone who plays a lot with really short fiction, I have some pretty strong feelings on this subject. Definitions are fast and loose, and the lines blur. There’s a brief glossary at the end of the post, but this is the important definition:
A story has a beginning, middle, and end, with some kind of change happening in the story.
The change aspect, especially in flash and smaller fiction, can be implied. The oft-quoted (and possibly apocryphal Hemingway snippet “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” has a huge implied story – with resolution – behind it. That counts.
What does not count are descriptions. Scenes. Character sketches. All of these things can be amazingly beautiful, powerful, evocative, and moving. I’ve written a few of these myself. (Look at this example of mine for a striking scene that is not a story. It sets up a scene, but doesn’t have an end or suggest change.) Too often, especially in flash fiction, this distinction is forgotten. Sometimes it’s because of the beauty of the work, which might be better called prose poetry rather than story. Other times it’s because the imagery is very powerful or… well, literary.
Compare the fragment I linked to above with, say, this drabble I wrote. The drabble – at 100 words – has a clearer story arc than the 133 word fragment. That’s what makes the difference.
What do you think?
Definitions (these are generally accepted, AFAIK):
- Short story: low end either 1500 or 2000 words. The high end varies from 10K to 20K words.
- Flash fiction: Again, varies. Common definitions are less than 1K words or less than 500 words.
- Drabble: 100 words. Period.
- Hint fiction: As defined here, it’s a mini-work that suggests a larger one. It’s an interesting conceit, and one they capped at 25 words. It’s arguable whether or not this fits in my definition of “story” above.
- Twit Fiction (or Very Short Stories): You can find these on Twitter by searching for #vss. These are 140 characters or less – but really, 135 characters to leave room for a space and the hashtag.