Common Faults in Short Stories

Or at least the ones entered in the Willesden Herald short story competition. Full list here, but key points worth repeating below:-

Throat-clearing openings. A build-up to the fact that we are about to hear a story, what it is not about, what it is about, the fact that it starts here, the fact it starts with something…

Stories are not Powerpoint presentations, they can speak for themselves, let them get on with it.

…the reader does not have a gun to his or her head. We have lives of our own. We don’t need to substitute somebody else’s dreary domestic arrangements in our minds for our own…

That’s not to say stories can’t have domestic settings, but get to the point. The reader isn’t going to tolerate banality and they do not have time to waste reading about chores they should be doing. Grab them, grip them and don’t let go.

Not a short story… The simplest advice is to read as many short stories as you can and yours should be at home in their company – if you aspire to that. And if you don’t, then why do you bother writing?

And if that sounds like hard work: writing is. Writers make it look easy because they’ve done the hard graft. If you want writing to be easy, you’d be better off doing those household chores instead of wasting your potential readers’ time.

If there is dialogue, it should be something that people really might say…

Dialogue is an artificial construct. Real conversations contain hesitations, repetitions, deviations, unanswered questions, go round in circles and often are two monologues pretending to be a dialogue. Put that in a story and no reader would get beyond the first page. Dialogue is the artificial that mimics the real and absolutely must be in character. Give a tersely-spoken character an eloquent, elaborate ten page soliloquy and your story deserves rejection.

…if I wouldn’t use the word in speech then I shouldn’t in writing.

Reading aloud usually irons out those tortuous sentences with too many subclauses but won’t iron out phrases that sound archaic or are simply trying too hard. You wouldn’t dress up a business letter in buzz-words and business-like phrases (if you do, now you know why people dread getting business communications from you and pick up the phone to ask what you meant) so don’t do the same to a short story.

Of course, all the above applies to poetry too. Write a poem that isn’t banal, that doesn’t advertise it’s a poem, that doesn’t outstay its welcome, that doesn’t sound false and obeys the competition rules. It amazes me how many competition entries are rejected for not complying with the rules. No judge can award a prize to a rule-breaking entry when there are plenty of entries that comply with the rules.

After all, you’d be the first to cry foul if your fantastic, compliant entry failed to be shortlisted and the winner was banal, a chore to read and far too long.