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Do You Make These 5 Surprising Short Story Mistakes?

short_story_mistakesAlthough 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.

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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.

Questions for WritersQUESTION: What do you hate to see in a short story?

14 Responses to Do You Make These 5 Surprising Short Story Mistakes?

  1. Well, you’re more likely to see it in novels than shorts, but I hate it when there’s a plot moving along, and then–BANG!–something dramatic happens and the story ends. And I’m sitting there going, “What happened with the plot?” because they’ve resolved NOTHING about the plot that’s been building for the whole story.

  2. Thanks for the great tips!

    I think even short stories should employ symbolism. Every character and object should appear in a short for a reason. If one object can simultaneously represent the theme of the story or the emotional state of the MC, for example, the story will be more memorable.

    I read a lot of sf/f/horror short stories and the authors are good at inventing new science or magic or monsters, but sometimes they lack a deeper meaning. Don’t just scare me – scare me for a reason. Have a theme. Symbolism can help with this.

  3. Thanks. Great article. I have so many plots in my head, I sometimes have to ignore some. Because I’m more a plot person, I have to re-work a few characters after the first draft. As always, you have given me more food for thought.

  4. Another area I struggle with is describing the story without giving away too much of the story. But you obviously have to provide enough information to draw a reader in. I have a hard time striking that balance.

  5. Thanks Angela, we’ll return the social media love!

    And having a definite plot in mind in advance is always good. The fundamentals are what get us from point A to point B, and that’s what truly matters. Good luck!

  6. Excellent insights; I’ve posted this article to one of my Pinterest boards so I can remember #2.

    “Too much plot” is my biggest bugbear.

    I usually write a description of the story: “This story is about a man/ woman who wants to ___ (goal) but _____ (obstacle/ conflict.)”

    Sometimes it works. :-)

    Thanks for this.

  7. Good advice.
    For me suspense is it – the single thing that I can’t stand the lack thereof in a short story. Infusing it in a story is an art , a very subtle one. Without it, the story reads like a feature piece and makes the writer look sorry.

  8. What a great round-up, short and sweet and to the point.

    Nor are these the “usual suspects” I expected to see under this headline. Well done. Your #3 intrigues me, because I think that’s something I’ve seen from writers whose work ended up boring me.

    When I’m reading a short, I can’t stand a protagonist who’s emotionally damaged, depressed, or befuddled. Give me a strong Lead. Let him or her be flawed and conflicted (for sure), but don’t give me headaches with the character’s weary confusion. If you want all the REST of the characters to exhibit those traits, I’m fine with that!

    I’ll also remember to keep your Title advice in mind. That’s one of my blind spots, apparently. Oops! (grin)


  9. The thing I hate to see in a short story is when the author can’t make up his or her mind as to
    what the story is about. I don’t like it when the story isnt told in a way that is interesting and makes the reader want to read on for more to see what the outcome of the character is going to be. Also I dislike it in a short story when the author doesn’t use enough imagination and clarity when the characters are speaking or doing things. The author should make sure the plot is realistic even if it is fiction, talk about it as if is happening now. Make sure the short story has some real life issues involved, things people are doing now. This is what makes a good read. Tell about things people are dealing with in this day and age. Be Realistic about the whole story. All those fancy words, their okay but make the charactrers do and say things readers can relate too. I have read some good short stories and can remember what I read. It is bad when you read a book and can’t remember hardly anything about it. or either the book is
    boring. Make up some characters that will stand out and readers can remember.

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