Now for the sixth instalment in my writing workshop series. I’ve covered the short story ending as well as the opening. I’ve guided you through dialogue and focused on the importance of taking time to do things properly. Last week, it was a competitions refresher. This week there’s some advice on the art of the short story:
On how to avoid a short story no-no
Writing short stories seems more competitive than ever, with fewer and fewer markets accepting them. But writers often unwittingly lessen their chances of acceptance through some common errors. Here are 10 to avoid:
- Don’t open your short story with a long and wordy weather report about how the shimmering sky was a beautiful azure blue, the sun was shining through the trees and there was a soft and gentle breeze etc etc. You need to hook your reader’s interest in the opening paragraph. Incidental details about the weather may put the reader off your story even if the rest is good.
- Be careful of your paragraph lengths, especially your opening paragraph. If a reader is faced with a big block of words, it can be very off-putting as can page after page of long and lengthy paragraphs. It’s good to have a mixture as this aids readability, though it depends on your market. For example, the women’s weeklies all use fairly short paragraphs. The best way to get it right is to check the publication you’re writing for and to see their preference.
- Too many characters in a short story can lead to your reader being confused and the characters can easily become two-dimensional with no substance to them. In a short story, you only have a limited number of words in which to tell your story so make sure every character has a purpose for being there. The general rule is no more than four characters.
- Over-used clichés such as, ‘Her skin was as white as snow’, ‘He looked outside and saw it was raining cats and dogs’ and ‘She looked as light as a feather’ will have a short story editor cringing and putting your work on the reject pile.
- Exclamation marks can be effective tools in conveying strong feelings – if used sparsely. Overdo them and they detract from the story and lose their impact.
- It’s so easy to fall into the trap of changing a character’s name half way through a story. So your story might start off being about Lesley and her troublesome son, only for her to morph into a character called Lindsay towards the end of the story. This shows that you’ve been careless so your story will almost likely fail.
- Don’t try to make your story ending too clever or over-do the explanation. If your reader has to keep going over the ending to understand it, it could ruin an otherwise brilliant story.
- One short story faux-pas, which has editors cringing is the ‘And then I woke up’ ending. It’s been done to death and makes the story lose all credence. Another version of this ending is where the character wakes up and at first thinks it’s all been a dream but it’s actually reality. Again, it’s been done over and over before.
- Twist endings are very popular but the clues must be in the story. The reader wants to finish the story and then say, “Oh, of course. Very clever. Why didn’t I realise that?” If your reader says, “Where on earth did that ending come from?”, then you leave her feeling cheated.
- If you want your story to succeed, it needs to be as error free as possible. A couple of mistakes won’t put an editor off choosing your story but if you have clearly not bothered to read your work through and it’s full of omitted full stops, questions marks etc, it’ll have the editor choosing another story.