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10 Fixes to Create Amazing Short Stories

20 March, 2016

A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.  —Lorrie Moore

A jet pack wearing hero on the cover of Amazin...
Amazing Stories, Aug. 1928. (Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, some stories suggest more of the mad rather than the lovely. What problems can wreck your short story’s pace and content?

This checklist can help you evaluate your material when you’re drafting, as well as later, when editing.

Problem 1: Writing beyond your story’s true start and true ending

Missing your story’s true beginning and ending can play havoc with pace and sense of closure. When you’re grappling with writing, it can be hard to identify the appropriate point to start and finish. Some writers load unnecessary information at the front. Some keep going, past the logical ending, as they keep explaining or tying up loose ends.

Unlike novels, short stories often leave some elements unexplored and unreported. When writing short, try to remain open, rather than explain too much.

Problem 2:  Overkilling your scenes
A similar problem is overkill, taking a scene past its dramatic peak.
What if you want a scene to peak when your main character confronts a workplace bully.
Start the build up too early and your readers may think the peak has come too late. If you Write too much afterwards, extending the scene, and they may not grasp where the peak point is.

Problem 3:  Repeating too often
A story that is too repetitive can annoy readers. They may think the author believes they’re stupid or can’t pay attention.

Even a small slip can irritate. If a character  introduces her pet as  my dog Jack, readers expect it to be shortened after that to Jack. If Jack’s owner has a hyena laugh,  readers don’t need that descriptor each time she reacts to something funny.

Problem 4:  Disclosing too early or too much
Modern short fiction often does not include a lot of detail about characters—their history  or backstory, their views about various topics. There simply isn’t that much story space to add extraneous details. Having a character provide too much personal history can overload a short story.

In real life, we usually share our personal details gradually, depending on what and how much we are comfortable telling. Think of how little information we provide when we meet someone new. When chatting with old friends, we may keep to familiar, accepted topics rather than introduce new ones.

Problem 5:  Inserting useless flashbacks
A flashback has a use. Done well, it helps readers understand the story. If it doesn’t provide this payoff, get rid of it, or find a different way to provide the information you want readers to know.

Imagine that you don’t want to use a major flashback when your character is reflecting on a haunting childhood tragedy. What can you do instead?

  • Make one flashback into a few shorter flashbacks, interspersed throughout your story. Your character could experience the tragedy several times, with different details coming to the surface each time
  • Replace the flashback with dialogue. Your character could tell another character about the incident. Discussion not only provides another’s view , plus it can flesh out both characters.

Problem 6:  Confusing divine art or reality as FICTION  
When writing the first messy draft, it’s fine to follow the flow of inspiration. But don’t mistake the result as a divine gift from the writing gods, meaning that no revision is needed.

If you want to fictionalise a real event, more is needed than changing the names of those involved. And probably every critique group focused on fiction has had someone respond to feedback with this defence:   But I wrote it exactly the way it really happened.

Even if you draw on divine inspiration, or a real-life account, test your story’s  fictional payload. How? Put your draft aside. Let it go cold. Then analyse each scene in terms of its fictional power.

1) Does this scene help my story overall? In what way? How much? Can I do better?
2) Does it help readers understand? What do they understand now that they didn’t before?
3) Would removing this scene weaken the story? Why? How?

Problem 7:  Writing unnecessary dialogue
A story’s pace and interest can be jeopardised by lengthy dialogue, especially if the topic is trivial. Example:  Readers learn that the main character has organised to take vengeance on her cheating partner. Next, she meets up with an old friend, and they chat for ages about work issues.

The problem is not that this conversation couldn’t happen in real life. But after getting readers focused on vengeance, office politics is a letdown. When writing dialogue relevant to the main plot, provide the weighting and space it deserves. pare back the dialogue.

Problem 8: Adding too many non-crucial details
Include too many minor events or details, and you may drown your story. And if minor items overwhelm major ones, your readers may become confused or bored. How much do you want readers to know at the different stages in your story?

To evaluate what’s important and what isn’t,  keep asking why. Why was Sam at the deli that Thursday? Why did James look scared when the phone rang?  You don’t have to explain everything to your readers. But working out the answers can help you identify your story’s mix of important and non-crucial elements. This exercise may also help you follow the famous writing advice:  Kill your darlings. 

Problem 9:  Creating clutter characters
These characters are minor, and almost invisible—unless you give them too much oxygen. You know you have a problem when a reader tells you how much she likes Sharon, the nurse’s aide, because she’s sooo funny. Unfortunately, Sharon has only six lines of dialogue in one scene and never appears again.

Problem 10: Incorporating dream scenes
When I wrote my first story in a beginners writing class, I included a dream scene. I thought it was so expressive. But the workshop leader looked pained. Since then, I’ve read or heard from other writing experts, who often advise jettisoning the dream scene. Why?

Sometimes, a dream scene has to carry too much weight. Example: using the dream to tell readers something crucial in understanding the story. Sometimes a dream is fluff, which does not pull its weight in terms of moving the story forward.

If you must incorporate that crazy dream you’ve thought up, at least clarify its purpose. What do you want your readers to get from it in terms of the overall story? Then consider alternatives to a dream, and decide what works best.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 March, 2016 9:05 am

    I enjoyed thinking about these things. All pertinent. Thanks, Marsha.


    • 22 March, 2016 2:51 pm

      Thanks Robyn. Tony and I have started reading your new novel, Wildlight. It certainly brings back mental images of Maat. Roger, the caretaker when we were there, was blown over when rounding the corner of the weather obs office, and fell down the steps there. It reminded me that one cannot take the weather for granted there. Would love to get back there someday. Not as remote but interesting, I ran across a residential in Finland, based on the topic of ‘solitude’.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 20 March, 2016 6:24 pm

    Great advice, Marsha. I agree with the workshop leader who expressed that dream scenes can work too hard or make the reader work too hard. As an editor, I find it challenging to pry those darlings away from their writers.

    Liked by 1 person

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