How Short Stories Can Suck (Tips on Writing)

The editors of the Willesden Herden posted an interesting list of 27 reasons why short stories can fail. They recently held a writing competition and didn’t select a winner; presumably all of them fell prey to at least one of these ailments. Required reading for anyone interested in writing. My favorites below, the bold is my own emphasis:

8. Throat-clearing openings. A build-up to the fact that we are about to hear a story, what it’s not about, what it is about, the fact that it starts here, the fact that it starts with something, the fact that it’s of a particular kind, the fact that you’re going to tell it. Cut, cut, cut. Then we come to the line where it really starts, but by then it’s too late: for something to get on a short list, it has to be virtually flawless and you’ve just started with a whopping great flaw.

18. Poor dialogue. Exposition of the story in dialogue is a common failing. “We must be very careful, as it is raining now and visibility is low.” “Yes, and it is cold. Ooh, look at the traffic there,” said Pinky. “Yes, there is a lot of it, isn’t there,” said Perky. “Look out! Elegant variation dead ahead”, muttered Pinky and exclaimed Perky simultaneously. Maybe you’ve heard somewhere that there has to be dialogue. What they didn’t add was, “not at any price.” If there is dialogue, it should be something that people really might say. Do not make your characters into ventriloquists dummies to tell your story through. There can be long passages without dialogue or there can be lots or a little dialogue. What there must not be is phoney dialogue. Another thing, if your characters are well enough defined, you should find that hardly any attribution is needed.

23. Faux jollity. Particularly faux jollity centred around pubs, and particularly around pubs in Ireland. Industrially extruded quantities of guff about distant histories in small town life. Standing jokes that should have been left where they toppled. Weird spastic prose as if the task of writing the story had been given by a writer with a good idea to the former class dunce, now barman. I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.

25. Clichéd. I’m thinking mostly of clichéd expressions. If I said I’m thinking "by and large" of clichéd expressions, that would be an example in itself. It’s usually little clumps of words that always seem to go together, but also whole concepts that go unquestioned. Cities are always bustling, sunsets always golden, looks always stern etc. The Irish poet Jean O’Brien said (in a workshop I attended) "Beware of the bits that seem to write themselves." In avoiding clichés it is the underlying assumptions that have to be dispelled. A "translated cliché" would still be a cliché.

26. Unspeakable. "Actors call some lines pills to swallow, for they cannot be made to sound genuine" is an example of this syndrome. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the use of the word "for" instead of "because" archaic and laboured. I tend to think that if I wouldn’t use the word in speech then I shouldn’t in writing. I wouldn’t say "I think it’s very cold today for the pond is frozen" so why write it? Anything that would sound laboured if read out has to go. You probably recognise the dismal effect when somebody says something and "it sounds like they’re reading it out". If I write: "The solution to this problem is to read everything aloud first" that in itself contains an example of the problem. If I read out that sentence, it sounds like I’m reading it out. Maybe it’s acceptable in an after-dinner speech, but it’s death to a story. It breaks the spell.

27. Pastiche. There can be cases where the whole story is a cliché, if you see what I mean, which is usually to say that it is derivative in the extreme. If it’s not a simple case of writing to a formula, this is more seriously a lack of a genuine "voice". What I usually say about pastiche is that I’m very impressed by people who can emulate other writers to a tee, because I find it difficult enough just to write like myself. Here’s a little story: When I was a kid I used to sing myself to sleep at night. One Sunday I went to see The Jolson Story (I think I saw parts 1 and 2) at the Casino cinema in Finglas and memorised some of the songs. That night I began to sing them in bed, and trying to sound like Al Jolson. Lying back in the dark, after a while I asked my Grandad, who slept on the other side of the room, if he liked my new voice. I’ll always remember his answer because it said so much. He said, "I prefer your own voice."

(Hat tip: Omnivoracious)

3 comments on “How Short Stories Can Suck (Tips on Writing)
  • Write-what-you-would’ve-spoken is a rule that should be graven in stone. The dunce-barman metaphor (as in “unspeakable”)is awesome.

    It’s not just about sounding authentic, it allows the author to leave a trail, shed a piece of himself. For the reader, it’s instant alignment with the writer’s thought stream and presentation. If a reader accidentally is seated next to a story teller in a long distance flight, a casual conversation should evoke a sense of familiarity through expressed views and by the distinct manner of unmistakable expression.

    You spoke my mind. Thanks for bringing it up.

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