As the editor of a genre fiction website, I’ve seen my share of short stories—the good and the bad.
No matter what kind of fiction you write, being able to craft a good short story can help you sharpen your skills. Ray Bradbury recommended writing one short story a week—it seemed to work out pretty well for him.
I’ve noticed that regardless of genre, from romance to horror to sci-fi, the main reasons for why I have to turn stories down are often then same—there’s a few recurring elements writers across the board seem to struggle with that hold them back from a successful short story.
What Makes Short Stories Successful?
Here are five important elements many writers in my short story submissions overlook:
1. Get right into the heart of the conflict
In a short story (especially flash fiction) don’t waste time setting up your scene or sharing your hero’s musings. Pull your reader to the heart of the story’s conflict right away.
2. Share only what’s critical to the moment
This issue is most stereotypically associated with fantasy, but I’ve seen it across the board. There’s no need to give your reader buckets of backstory. Tell us what we need, right when we need it. Everything else should be cut.
3. Don’t get Artsy
You can stuff your flowery prose and philosophical dialogue and ambivalent phrasing where the sun don’t shine. Don’t give me Artsy—Artsy does not beget art. Just give me a good story.
When it comes to Artsiness, I have a personal rule: If I find myself deeply in love with my words, that’s a good sign I need to come back to that section and make some cuts later.
4. Build to the climax efficiently
In short stories—emphasis on short—your plot needs to build efficiently. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word should take the reader closer to the climax. If a piece doesn’t serve this purpose, cut it. Short stories just do not have space for meandering.
5. Have a clear conclusion
For some reason, a lot of writers seem to have a lot of love for the ambiguous story ending. See guideline #3—don’t get Artsy. It may feel lofty to get all Inception on your story’s conclusion, but specificity trumps a confused reader every time.
I see this most often among less experienced writers who don’t yet trust their stories to do the heavy lifting—but relax. A compelling story will do the heavy lifting for you.
Mastering the art of the short story can help you hone the critical skills for writing of any kind. Why? Because this condensed form forces you to get merciless with your storytelling, and forces weaknesses to expose themselves.
These five elements are ones I have seen writers struggle with over and over again among the submissions to my short story site. Look out for them in your work, and you are well on your way to compelling, cohesive craft.
Does your story have the keys elements of cohesion?
Revisit a short story you have written (or write a new one!). Are the key elements of cohesive stories present? What did you do well in this story? Where are more revisions needed? Share your thoughts in the comments!