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Although a “mistake” is always in the eye of the beholder, there are a few common weaknesses that we regularly see in short stories by new authors who are hoping to get published in literary journals. Are you making these common short story mistakes? Read our list, then assess your own short story. Good luck!
Short Story Mistakes That New Writers Often Make
1. Giving the story to a nonessential character. As writers, we’re observers. Maybe we’re not in the middle of the action, but we’re always keenly tuned in to it. As a result, many new writers tend to give their stories to characters who aren’t really central, to impartial observers. The result? Stories that lack emotionality, intensity, and sometimes focus.
The fix: Play with your short story’s POV. You’re allowed to play. Experiment until you find the voice that transmits the deepest, most compelling experience of the central story.
2. Packing in too much plot. A short story that tries to do too much will feel simultaneously overloaded and underdeveloped. The heart (or focus) of the story gets lost in the many distractions of tangential plotlines.
The fix: Explore your own motivations and intentions. What do you really want your story to do? Once you’ve identified the heart of your story, just peel off the dead layers and let the reader experience the core of your work.
3. Leaning too heavily on one narrative idea. Sometimes, writers who have a narrow-minded dedication to their core ideas are in danger of getting stuck. They return to the same idea again and again, beating it to a pulp in dialogue, setting, characterization, etc.
One of two things can happen: The story will become a wonderful, deep exploration of the singular notion if a writer is careful and circumspect; or the story will never grow, develop, or deepen at all. It won’t be able to get past that initial impetus and blossom into something bigger.
The fix: If you’re worried your story is spinning its wheels, consider playing with some “opposing forces” or elements that seem to work against your character’s central desire. Come at your core idea from the other direction. You may need to experiment until you find the element that’s missing.
4. Lame titles. We all know that crafting a good title can be difficult. To get around this, many writers resort to one- or two-word titles like The Living Room or Mourning. Many times, these sorts of titles “read” to editors as cop-outs.
The fix: Call in reinforcements. Ask friends to read your story and have them circle the words or phrases that strike them or stand out. You might just have your title hidden in your text!
5. Going on too long. When it comes to writing, longer is usually easier. But the fact is, editors have consistently demonstrated to our submission strategists and clients here at Writer’s Relief that shorter short stories seem to be more readily picked up than longer ones (in general).
The fix: If publication is your goal, you may want to keep your word count under 3,500 words. Of course, there are lit mags that accept longer short stories. But with a shorter short, you’ll have more markets available to you. Read More: 5 Ways To Shorten Your Short Stories.
When Is A Mistake Not A Mistake In A Short Story?
We all know that when it comes to writing a good short story, there are no rules. The trick is knowing what modern thinking about short story “rules” suggests and then deciding for yourself which rules to break and which to follow. You’ll have to figure out for yourself if your “mistake” is actually working in an effective way.
But if your narrative choice for a short story doesn’t seem to be standing up to editorial and reader feedback, then it may be time to see if you’re guilty of one of these short story pitfalls.
QUESTION: What do you hate to see in a short story?