Short stories are a great way to hone your craft and snag bylines from literary magazines (and hey, they’re also a ton of fun to write). Even better, they can help you build your readership—assuming they’re written well.
But alas, as the editor of a short story website, I see a number of common short story mistakes over and over again, even from authors with great fundamentals. Worse than just errors in craft, these mistakes betray readers’ trust and investment in your story.
Want to learn to write a short story? Check out our guide, how to write a short story from start to finish.
4 Common Short Story Mistakes to Avoid
Don’t lose fans before you even get them—help readers love you by following these four short story rules.
1. Don’t meander
Some stories want to lure you in slowly, asking readers to invest for paragraphs before we even know what the story is about.
No. No. NO.
This coy approach is almost never a good way to start a piece of writing, but it’s especially problematic in short stories, where every word needs to work double time.
Never ask a reader to earn their way into the heart of your story—instead, earn their attention by offering your story’s heart (and protagonist, and plot) up front.
2. Don’t use scene breaks
The thing about short stories is, they’re short. How many scenes do you think you can responsibly develop and ask readers to genuinely connect with in just a few thousand words?
Keep your short stories tight and compelling by maintaining a single stream of narrative, without the jumping around through various times or places.
If you catch yourself using asterisks, dashes or otherwise separating your story into segments, look out—you’re probably using a short cut, and readers don’t reward laziness.
Ask yourself: Is there any way around the scene break? Use that writerly creativity.
3. Don’t change point of view
Similar to scene breaks, there is a place in writing for shifts in point of view (see: Gone Girl). However, that place is almost never in a short story.
A short story is a small slice in time—the pinhead of a needle. Breaking it up with multiple points of view diffuses that moment the story is exploring… and most of all, it diffuses the investment the reader has made in your story.
Readers attach themselves to that first character you introduce. When you change it up on them, you burn readers for the good-faith investment they made in your narrative. Short story simply doesn’t give you enough space to earn back the readers’ trust.
If you feel you absolutely must get within the minds of more than one character in a short story, you’re better off sticking to third-person omniscient throughout. But first, ask yourself if it’s truly necessary and challenge yourself to find a way around it.
4. Don’t leave the reader wondering
To me, there’s nothing worse than making the personal investment to follow a story to its end, only to find that the end doesn’t offer a conclusion to the plot.
Why do so many writers do this? Did you max out the word count? Are you trying to be artistic and leave the end open to interpretation?
Whatever the reason, vagueness is never your friend as an artist. It’s fine to leave judgment to your readers’ discretion, but give us the facts we need to make those judgments—don’t make us guess about plot basics.
Nothing makes a reader angry faster than investing in a fun story only to find out the writer didn’t live up to his/her end of the deal.
To Write a Great Story, Nail the Basics
Writing is an art, not a science—there’s certainly a time to break any rule out there. But if you find yourself breaking one of these rules, think long and hard about why. Is it truly necessary? I’ve seen too many times when it isn’t.
Don’t let these common pitfalls hold you back from getting published and winning fans. Look out for them in your writing and take them as a sign to think hard about your story’s structure before pushing it out to the world.
Most of the time, it’s easy to fix once you take the time to think it through.
Do you write short stories? How do you feel about these short story problems above? Let me know in the comments.
Have you used any of these pitfalls in your own short stories? Go back to it and think—is there anyway to get around it? Odds are, there is. Take a stab at a rewrite.
Then, share your thoughts about how the drafts compare in the comments!