Last spring I met Amy Green at the Write-to-Publish conference in IL. Amy is a young college student at Taylor University studying professional writing. She’s also a published author. This summer she did an internship at Focus on the Family in CO. (If you’d like to read more about her experience and enter to win her book, click here.) Today, Amy is sharing her knowledge about writing short stories.
Read Amy’s post below to determine whether your shorts have what it takes to stand up in a crowd:
Four Reasons Why Short Stories Fail
1. You are being a puppet master
This is the short story that seems…stiff. I’m not sure how else to describe it. It has a beginning, middle, and end, and all the mechanics are there. But something about it feels fake and jerky: dialogue that doesn’t sound real, a memorable plot created by forgettable characters, or paragraphs that make me say, “Wait, that wouldn’t really happen.”
Almost every time, it’s because the writer planned every detail of the plot ahead of time and then commanded some characters (usually not very well-developed characters) to do whatever the outline said, like a puppet master jerking strings.
There’s nothing wrong with outlining. But if you’re writing and you realize at a certain point that what you planned isn’t really what should happen next, don’t force it. Just make a new plan and go with it.
Have you ever noticed the difference between good and bad animation? The easiest way to see this is to compare a hand-drawn animated TV series to, say, a Pixar movie. In both cases, the animators manipulate the characters to tell a story. But in one, the lines are jerky, there isn’t much detail in the background, and the plot is often as one-dimensional as the visuals. In the other, you almost forget that what you’re watching isn’t real, because of the skill of the animators, who created seamless transitions and fluid movement.
They’re still puppet masters in a way…but you can’t see the strings. That’s what you should be going for.
2. You haven’t edited it yet.
This is the most common mistake, and the easiest to fix. I’ve met a lot of writers who write a draft, check it for grammar errors and typos, and think they’re done.
Wrong. And, in my opinion, they’re missing out on all the fun that way!
Editing isn’t just about making sure there aren’t any errors in your story (although that’s in there too). It’s about taking time to add more description, work out plot flaws, and *gasp* maybe even delete your favorite paragraph because it just doesn’t work in this story.
Here’s how I like to do my editing. I wait a while, then read my story as an reader, not as the author. Then I ask myself hard questions like, “Are there places where the pace lags and I get bored? Did I go into too much detail with the backstory? I know this is a convenient solution, but would he actually be able to get out of the prison with only a paperclip and a gum wrapper?”
I usually don’t fix things right then, but leave comments like, “Unrealistic.” “Where did this person come from?” “Flashback too long—rewrite.” Then I go back later and do those things.
Don’t rush through the writing process. Just because it’s a short story doesn’t mean it should be easy. (If it’s easy, you’re probably doing something wrong.)
When you’re done self-editing (and it can take three or four read-throughs), ask a trusted writer friend or two to edit the story for you. This is a must. It can be scary to ask for feedback, but other people provide different perspectives and notice mistakes you just breeze by.
If you know what your writing weaknesses are (and you should try to figure them out), give your editors a few questions to focus on. For example, I usually say to mine, “Can you tell me where you weren’t able to picture what was going on?” because I tend to skimp on description. That way, you’ll get help where you need it most.
3. It’s actually a novel.
This one can be a little touchy. People who have invested a lot of time in creating an imaginary world with lots of complex characters decide they want to write a short story about it.
But they don’t usually write a short story. They write an excerpt. Maybe it’s a really good excerpt, but short stories should be able to stand alone.
How can you tell if you’ve done this? Here are some common features of novels-disguised-as-short-stories.
- They have a ton of backstory. This can be on the characters or the world itself. If you find yourself writing three paragraphs on how a certain kind of yak acquired magical powers in their hair, or if you want to tell us the family lineage of your heroine and how the various family relationships have affected her, you’re writing a novel.
- People who read it say things like, “I can’t wait to read the rest of this.” That’s a compliment on your writing, because it means they enjoyed it. However, it also means the story doesn’t stand alone.
- The ending isn’t really an ending. Since it’s part of a longer chain of events in your mind, most of the time, there are conflicts introduced that are never resolved. And the reader ends the last paragraph and says, “That’s it?”
My advice? If you’re going to write a novel, just write it. Don’t try to cram it into a short story.
But if you still really want to use characters from a potential novel, just to try out your ideas, make sure you focus on one moment of time. Try to answer one specific question about your characters or your world (“What happened that made him decide to join the group working for the Black Market?” “How did the two sweethearts meet?” “When did he know he wanted to be an artist?”)
If you’re wondering how to tell if your idea is a short story or a novel, think about it in terms of Pixar movies and animated shorts. Monsters Inc. is about two monsters who accidentally let a supposedly toxic child into their world, and, while trying to return her to her home, come to care about her and simultaneously uncover a corporate conspiracy. “For the Birds” is about how an awkward, loveable bird teaches a judgmental flock a lesson. One is complex, with many subplots and characters, while the other is simpler and has one central focus.
Each one is brilliant at telling the story it does, but imagine what would happen if the animators had tried to stretch the bird story into a two-hour movie or cram Mike and Sulley’s adventure into a three-minute slot.
Find the right format for the fiction story in your head, then just tell the story well.
4. The story has already been told.
Really, every story has been told, especially if you’re writing a genre story (like fantasy, horror, romance, and so on). There are only nine basic plots, right? So why would this be a reason your short story isn’t working?
Because your story can’t be told the same way as any other story, and a lot of stories I’ve read tend to sound the same. The sci-fi’s all use similar gadgets, the historical fiction takes place in a few common time periods, and the mysteries give away their twist halfway through the story.
It’s really hard to write an original short story, especially with such a tight word count. Here are some ways to make your story stand out:
- Do something unexpected with the setting. I wanted to write a short story about death and grieving. The logical place to set it would be in a hospital or at a gravesite. So I set it in Disney World. Readers love twists. Wouldn’t you want to read a suspense story that takes place in an abandoned art museum or a romance where the characters meet while stuck at the top of a rusty carnival roller coaster? Me too.
- Create 3-D characters. Take some time to think about your main characters. Would you want to meet them in real life, or are they too…ordinary? Look at the people around you. They have quirks, senses of humor, likes and dislikes that you wouldn’t expect. Make your characters the same way.
- Play up a big-time tension. Sure, maybe your story is really about the Civil War or a serial killer or a peasant revolt against dictatorial wizards. But you get way more bang for your emotional buck if you include a character struggling with something every reader can identify with (betrayal of a friend, need to protect a family member, desire to be a hero, drive for revenge, and so on).