I have both written a read a fair number of short stories in my time, and I thought it might be timely – (what with the ongoing flash fiction contests over at Litopia getting more and more people to try their hand at this form) – to summarise some of the more common mistakes people make when writing short stories.
1. It’s not a story – often just a scene or setting
2. The bolt from the blue – the twist ending that comes from nowhere – a twist in the tale can be good, but not if it’s just been tagged on for effect
3. The bad joke – similar to 2 – the only point of the story is the delivery of a [bad] punchline at the end.
4. The summary of a story – almost like a mini novel or a synopsis
5. No proper ending – endings are hard – they need to resonate and have strength and purpose. So often stories seem to just fizzle out. Sometimes this can be something as simple as not ending in the right place.
6. And then he woke up – I really hate these – it’s a case of ‘drat, how do I get my characters out of this situation – oh I know…’
7. It’s a cliché – I won’t list cliché’s here – it’s been done elsewhere and so much better – here’s one such link.
Of course, just getting these things right doesn’t automatically mean that you’ve written a good story – there’s far more to it than that. The short story has so much to squeeze into a small space; believable characters, a satisfying plot with a good resolution, but also, more subtly, the really good ones manage to work on many different levels.
And that, of course, is where the real skill lies.
Anyway Sally Zigmund is running a series of excellent articles on short stories over at The elephant in the writing room – I suggest you go and check them out!