Updated May 2023
Imagine for a moment that you’re the editor of a well-known literary journal. Every day, hundreds of short stories cross your desk in a relentless stream, blurring together, melting into one huge pile of “no.” For the most part, none of the short story submissions stand out in a crowd. You wish writers would learn the best way to submit stories to literary magazines.
And then—BAM! A story out of left field strikes a chord deep within you. Now that’s something you might want to publish. It goes in the other pile, the much smaller and elusive batch of wonderful “yes.”
That’s a scene any writer would love to see play out, but floating to the top of that river of submissions takes effort, persistence, and a couple of tricks up the sleeve. Here are a few ways to make your story stand out:
1. Open your short story with a bang. Unless he’s turned into a giant cockroach, starting your story with your main character waking up is as average as it gets. You have a small space in which to tell your story, so get straight to the point—try dropping the audience in medias res (right into the heart of the action), and get them excited for the ride.
2. Keep it short. Pack a punch in very few words. Throw away unnecessary frills. For more on this issue, read: Why Length Matters.
3. Create larger-than-life characters. Dull characters make for dull short stories. While you want your characters to be relatable, you don’t want them to be ordinary. If they are dynamic, have their own unique voices, and approach their world in their own distinctive ways, there’s a good chance they’ll stick in a reader’s mind and so will your story.
4. Paint your world vividly. Whether it’s a bustling metropolis or the middle of the unforgiving Sahara, the setting in which your story takes place influences everything that happens within it. Don’t just plop your characters into a generic town—create your own world and reveal to the audience the intricacies therein.
5. Keep the stakes high. There’s a certain aspect of human nature that likes to experience intense situations vicariously. Never let the lifeline of your story run flat. Every decision your characters make should propel the story forward, keeping the plot taut and engaging. The higher the stakes, the bigger the catharsis your readers will experience when the conflict is resolved.
As always, Writer’s Relief helps writers target their stories to the literary journal editors who are most likely to enjoy them. For more information about this process, please visit an overview of our services.
QUESTION: Do you already use any of these strategies consciously in your work?
Good things to remember for any story, no matter how long. You have a great blogsite here. I’m really enjoying wandering through the rooms and reading the articles. Thanks!!
Sometimes I long for the days when a reader could get settled in a story before being blasted out of the chair!…Are we so fast paced, and impaitent that we can no longer enjoy the prelude to the disaster or crisis? Just a thought, LinnAnn
When I’m writing short stories, I always try to start them right in the middle of a scene rather than “Hi, my name is John. I have brown hair and blue eyes. I’m a pretty easy-going guy.”
I figure you have about 2 paragraphs at the beginning of a story that the reader will give to you (like a freebie) before they make the decision whether to continue reading or not. If the first two paragraphs are what makes or breaks your story, you better not waste them with a boring character intro! It should be where (one of) the most important parts of your story happens!
#4. I go with the vivid imagery. If you can make the settings/characters really pop so the reader can SEE what you’re saying, they’ll be hooked. Thats half the fun of reading is being able to see that picture you’re painting for them.
Jumping straight into the action is the only way to ‘hook’ the reader. Especially when there are 50,000 other books in a bookstore. Competition is fierce.
Yeah right. James Joyce would so agree.
If you have the choice of a dating service or Writers’ Relief—both expensive—choose WR.
The field is vast and orientation is impossible.
Once you’ve written the perfect beginning, you’ll still need someone good to “sell” the story.
I am a senior citizen and grew up on the classics – the epic novels that employed vivid descriptions of people, places and events. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck used almost 2 pages to describe a turtle climbing a hill and I loved it. Another of his books, East of Eden was filled with all the beauty of nature and the ugliness of evil. Gone With the Wind, War and Peace – need I go on? Today’s readers want to cut to the chase – forget the foreplay and get right into the hot sex. As a writer, I have tried to adapt, but I feel the loss of all that beauty.