To do my usual throat-clearing: I’m just a guy, who writes both nonfiction and fiction, poetry, and all forms in between. I would never claim to be an “expert,” only someone with musings about what I like to read from other writers (professional and amateurish), and how I try to approach my own stories. There is no right way to write, only what people are willing to read and enjoy.
That said, this one seems obvious enough, right? Saying every story should have a beginning, middle and end seems so axiomatic, why am I doing a blog post on it? Well, perhaps it’s not, particularly in the realm of flash fiction where such a structure often seems quaint. After all, you’re working within constricted parameters, so the thinking goes, there’s not enough space to set-up the story with a beginning, dig into the meat of the story in the middle, and cap it off with a killer ending.
That’s a misnomer I’m writing a blog post to argue otherwise: Even a 75-word story, as I recently wrote, ought to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even the 273-character (or about 45 words) very short stories I participate in daily should have some semblance of a beginning, a middle and end.
Here is something I don’t think is a story (and again, I’m just a guy):
Preaching a message
- Messages are difficult to get across without seeming like preaching in expanded works of fiction, much less a flash fiction piece. If you’re spending that valuable real estate to tell me — and I’m being literal here, the author is talking to me (or perhaps, some would say at me), not actually telling a story — some sort of message, I may agree with the message or not, that’s aside the point; did you present a story? I don’t think so.
- It comes across more like advice than it does a three-act story. Let me whip up an example of preaching as story rather than story as story. Let’s say the #vss365 prompt word was tree or trees:
Humans are always cutting down #trees in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar. The only green they care about is the kind that can fit in their wallets, not the green that hangs off of trees. Maybe if we thought about how trees help us breathe, then we wouldn’t cut them down? #vss365
That’s not a story in my book (couldn’t help it with the pun). And I know it’s easy to create a bad example in my head to prove my own point, but consider the prevalence of what some may call “lyrical writing.” I’m not opposed to lyrical writing, but lyrical writing is the above example, but with fancy dressings.
The problem with lyrical writing
- I don’t like using the word “problem” because that makes it seem so darn serious, but for the ease of conveying meaning, my problem with lyrical writing is that it often forgoes the three-act structure of a beginning, middle, and end, at least in the flash fiction writing I’ve seen in various journals. I will be reading a story, which still seems to be in the first gear, and then it stays there until the story ends. It leaves me wanting more, and wanting that shift.
- Lyrical writing can be beautiful writing, to be sure. After all, that’s sort of the point, right? Lyrical writing “sings on the page,” and is essentially a practice in showy prose, demonstrating technical flourishes. Again, I love language, and I can appreciate a beautiful turn-of-phrase or way of describing something I hadn’t thought of before, but did you tell me a story? You may have spent 550 words intricately describing in flowery words your relationship with your grandmother, and what that says about life, but did you tell me a story? Was there a beginning, a middle, and end?
Why does it matter?
- That’s the operative question 600 words into this post: Why does it matter that a flash fiction story has a beginning, middle and end? Because I don’t know what we’re doing otherwise. Okay, that was a nice technical piece of writing, and quite beautiful, but this is a story, not a poem. Poetry is its own form and it also tells stories with arguably a beginning, middle and end, so I’m not denigrating poetry by comparing lyrical writing to a sort of melding of fiction and poetry. But I want to feel something, not merely marvel at your technical prowess.
- Stories need movement, something pushing the story forward, and a natural way to do that is the beginning, middle and end structure. Without that inherent flow, where is the story going? What is it moving toward? That isn’t to say you need action in the sense of explosions and car chases, but something needs to be happening. Not just you writing in a lyrical way an observation you’ve made about a relationship or the moon.
In short, I want to read a story, no matter the length, that follows the beginning/middle/end structure because it works. I’m open to something outside that formula, but it seems the exception to the rule.
What do you think? Am I way off base here? Am I being too hard on lyrical writing, perhaps mischaracterizing it? I’d be happy to hear your thoughts! Thank you for reading.