What's Your Point?
Seven Ways to
Better Short Stories
By S. J. Reisner
“What is the
point of this story? It goes nowhere.” Sincerely, Editor.
“I didn’t care if your
characters lived or died.” Sincerely, Editor.
Let’s face it, short
fiction can be tough to write. I received numerous rejects like the ones
above before I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. The revelation
came to me as I was critiquing another writer’s short story. After forcing
myself to read the entire 6,000 words I put my pen to the manuscript and
scribbled the first thing that came to mind, “This story has no point,
and I could care less about the characters.”
That was when it hit me.
I was not simply having a revelation about the story in front of me; I was
describing my own short fiction. Now I should have known this was the
problem because editors had been telling me as much for some time. But it
took seeing the same problem in someone else’s work for me to fully
Later that day I went
through all my rejected short fiction manuscripts. Much to my own surprise,
my stories had too much back-story irrelevant to the plot. The story always
started before something interesting happened. I often tossed in too many
characters. As a result, my characters had no depth, and no distinct voices.
I was trying to shove too much into too little space. My plots often went
nowhere, or were not interesting in the least. As my husband described it,
“This happened, then this happened, etcetera, etcetera, he died.”
I wasn’t really telling
a story. Instead, I was simply sharing an irrelevant, and boring event in
the everyday lives of a motley crew of characters. The main character, if
the reader was able to find her amongst the variety of company, never
changed or grew. The motivations behind my villains weren’t convincing. The
resolutions were too simplistic and unrealistic.
To solve this issue in
my own writing, I came up with a seven-point checklist to make sure my
latest masterpiece wasn’t just another bland story with characters that left
the reader only feeling apathy.
1. Make sure the first sentence throws the reader right into the middle
of the action. The first sentence should be interesting enough to entice
the reader to keep reading. “Janet’s hand met John’s face with a whip-like
crack.” is much more interesting than, “It was a cool morning in
mid-September.” The reader wants to know why Janet slapped John. A weather
report is irrelevant and, in this case, has nothing to do with the story.
2. Limit the number
of characters based on their relevance to the plot. This gives the
writer room to develop them. If Bill and Adam merely sit on the sidelines
watching Janet slap John, and do nothing to further the plot, they have no
purpose. Get rid of them, or turn them into nameless bystanders.
3. Make sure the plot
is compelling. Janet and John have a fight, they break up, the end. This
is not a compelling plot. Janet and John have a fight over his drug use.
Janet walks out on John and as a result, he seeks help for his drug
addiction. John tries to get Janet back, but slips into his old ways. At
this point John realizes he has to leave Janet behind in order to overcome
his addiction. This is much more interesting. Not to mention that John, the
main character, grows and changes due to Janet leaving him.
4. Make sure the
information and detail you choose to add is relevant to the story. The
fact that John has a pet ferret has nothing to do with his drug addiction.
However, feel free to mention that John grew up in a bad part of town and
learned quickly that selling drugs on the street was easy money. Keep every
aspect of the story relevant.
5. Make sure you have
a clear antagonist the reader can easily identify. The antagonist in
this story is John’s drug addiction. Janet is merely the catalyst who moves
the story forward, making John realize he has a problem that he must
6. Go through your
story and make sure the protagonist’s solutions to the problem are realistic
and not too simplistic. Make sure your protagonist struggles. Without
struggle to overcome a difficulty, a story will fall flat. You want the
reader to cheer your main character on, feel bad when he fails, and feel joy
when he succeeds. John simply walking into rehab one day and leaving clean a
week later is too easy. Make him struggle with it. Make him yearn for the
drug. Maybe even slip back into the habit for a short time.
7. Make sure your
antagonist has a realistic and clear motivation. Certainly, John’s drug
addiction has no aspiration to take over the world, but it is fighting with
John’s body and mind and ruining his life. If your antagonist is a person,
why does he want to take over the world, kidnap the girl, or steal the Orb
of Uvbah? Just because doesn’t cut it. Give him a real motivation.
While meeting these
seven criteria does not guarantee publication, it will certainly help you
write more clear and concise stories. I’ve discovered that if I can look at
a piece of short fiction and say, “Yep, I have all of these points covered,”
it is less likely I will receive a rejection letter later asking, “What’s