It’s the easiest thing in the world to write a bad short story. You could:
- fail to read short stories (eg., collections like Nam Le: The Boat, Cate Kennedy: Like a House on Fire)
- write like it was 1964 (Writing has changed since then and competitions are being won everyday by people who are writing like it’s 2015.)
- colour your prose purple (Most writers exercise a little purple in the beginning, but practice polishes the melodrama out.)
- narrate a Series of Loosely Connected Events (apologies to Lemony Snicket)
- believe an excess of poetic language equals fine writing (It doesn’t. It may equal poetry.)
- write a story longer than the space it must fit, then hack off the ending. (Think Cinderella’s big sister cutting off her toes to better fit into the slipper – and still failing.)
- believe that, because you’re retelling a true event, you don’t have to write it like a story. (Life is stranger than fiction. Make us believe. Make us Suspend our Disbelief.)
- write a story just like everybody else’s story. (This only counts if you’ve nothing new to say.)
- tell yourself stories don’t have to say anything special. (Stories are a communication between writer and reader. If the writer has nothing to say, why should a reader care to listen.)
- cut a slab out of the middle of your novel. (Short stories and novels are generally very different stylistically. For one thing, short story prose has to be tight, concise, efficient. Novelists can be more expansive when writing.)
If you want to win:
- Come up with a cracker of an idea.
Aiming to use perfect prose to express a fresh idea will secure a writer a good chance of a win, but if you can’t manage both, remember: more people have been successful with a fresh idea and fairly ordinary prose than have won with an uninspiring story impeccably written.
- Create three dimensional characters.
Readers must believe in your characters in order to care what happens to them. Give them flaws and weaknesses. Give them something to fight for. Don’t be afraid to let your characters speak. In fact, encourage it.
- Remember to create a setting.
Seems obvious, I know, but so many characters float through the story world like a ghost, neither touching nor being touched by their surroundings. Even if the story is happening in the ubiquitous kitchen, give us a glimpse of the red range, the swing in the back yard, etc.
- Begin where it counts.
Where does it count? In medias res (in the middle of things) is when.
When he throws the knife. When she opens the Christmas card. When she pulls on her clown outfit for the first time. When he learns to tap dance.
You don’t have enough words in a short story to waste them on an introduction.
- End when it stops counting.
Usually the beginning will help you work out when the story is finished. If he threw the knife to protect himself, then the story ends when he’s safe. If the Christmas Card makes her cry, then the story might end when she’s happy again. That clown suit she was pulling on, the story ends when we find out whether it was a good idea, or not. And the tap dancing – ask Billy Elliot – that story might end when mum and dad realise he can dance better than he can kick a goal.
Some things to avoid (or at least consider carefully) when writing a short story
- warmed over ideas
- characters with nothing to lose
- stereotypes and cliches
- more than one point of view character
- dialogue that sounds mechanical
- It was a dream endings
- a plethora of pulchritudinous, perfectly purple pronouncements
- forgetting to include a plot