There appears to be a misconception among some writers that a flash fiction story is too short to be anything but a scene. On the contrary, ALL fiction must tell a story. Legend has it that Earnest Hemmingway wrote this story: “Classified: Baby Goods. For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” This is a story. Of the characters, all off-camera, the ethereal antagonist, death, is perhaps the most real. And yet death is only there because we conjure him. Our mind imagines all the details: the child who never wore the shoes, the parent, bereft and hopeless, yet practical though their suffering. Do they sell the shoes for the money – pennies on the dollar? For closure? Ah, the theme…as personal as the details of the middle.
A scene might be a detailed description of the death of a child. Or perhaps it is a description of impassionate death personified collecting his due. A scene might be a mother selling the last reminder of her pain, unable to throw her dead baby’s shoes away, selling them in the hope that they will find purpose on another pair of little feet.
A scene, even a beautifully written scene, is not enough. A story must take a character from one place to another. There must be a decision, and a change. Not a change in situation – that’s easy, almost unavoidable. A change in the person. A realization, a new self-awareness, a discovery of purpose…something. The protagonist is usually the one who changes, but it could be the antagonist. It might even be a third party. It comes down to this: without an arc, you don’t really have a story. In the famous ten-word story the arc too is off-camera. At some point, the parent makes the decision to sell the shoes, to choose a different path.
That brings us to structure. Even a very short story can have three acts. An act might be as short as a couple of sentences, or a single sentence. Here is a sketch of a theoretical story with each sentence numbered:
1) Establish the protagonist’s identity and desire.
2) Something happens to create an obstacle between the protag and what he wants. In this case it will serve as our inciting incident.
3) Protag attempts to rectify the problem.
4) Antagonist counter-maneuvers, and makes the protag’s situation worse than ever. This will serve as our pivot point one.
5) Protag must now choose – his first path is closed. Does he retreat to safety or do something radically different that amounts to a new path?
6) Protag starts on new direction (of course he didn’t retreat!)
7) Antagonist turns up the heat.
8) Protag realizes he can’t do this alone, enlists help.
9) Protag’s situation improves, seems to be getting an edge.
10) Antagonist makes an unexpected and violent move, destroys something protag loves, and threatens what he holds most dear. This is his darkest hour.
11) Protag takes a desperate chance, and (succeeds or fails?)
12) Protag or Antagonist (whoever survives) reflects in a brief denouement.
This is a full-blown (and somewhat stereotypical) story outline. If you write twelve sentences and average fifteen words per sentence you have written a three-act story in 180 words. Yes, as a matter of fact, it is possible. In fact, it’s possible in a lot less sentences and words than this.
You don’t have to use this plot structure. One-act and two-act stories work fine, as long as they are stories. But you do need a structure. Show us what changes, why it does, and why it matters. Anything less is probably not a story.