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The Seven Deadly Sins of Short Story Writing and how to avoid them

This post grew out of an article I originally wrote for the Hysterectomy Association when I was writer in residence of their annual writing competition earlier this year.

I recently came across the WikiHow entry on how to write a short story. The actual article contains good advice, but I arched an eyebrow when I read the introduction.

While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft and, most importantly, finish, a short story.”

No, they can’t – unless the writer means that almost anybody can produce 1000+ words of grammatically correct sentences that somehow link up together, but that’s no more a short story than a roll of material pinned into a tube is a dress.

I resent the idea that short stories are an easy option. The very size means there’s nowhere to hide flabby ideas and weak sentences. A clunky phrase stands out as if it had been highlighted in neon yellow. Usually a short story has a very restricted range of characters and the action takes place over a relatively short period of time – days rather than years – and there’s no room for time slips or flash backs. Usually. As soon as you try to formulate any rule of writing you can think of brilliant exceptions, but I read a lot of short stories by emerging writers and here are some of the most common problems I come across.

1) Too much information

I don’t need to know that the head gardener is called Barry and is a veteran of the Falklands War if all he does is knock on a door. It may sound like being a member of a spy ring, but everything’s on a need to know basis. If Barry only has a walk on part readers don’t need to be introduced.

2) Too many names

Not every character has to be named. They can be refered to as their occupation: the vicar, the postman. Or by their relationship to others: grandad, his wife, her teacher….

3) Too much back story

Sir Angus Wilson who helped set up the first UK Masters in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in the early 1970s thought that short stories and plays were similar.

“You take a point in time and develop it from there; there is no room for development backwards.”

I think Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, was saying much the same thing when she described short stories as ‘a world seen in a quick glancing light. ’

4) Too much description

If you think of a story as a journey, description forces the reader to stop. It’s as if the author is saying hold on a moment, I know you want to find out what happens next, but I’ve created a whole new world for your enjoyment: stop and look at the sun reflecting on the water, the child’s soft curls and the cold blue of the spring sky… Too much description and the reader might not bother to wait for the journey to start again. Too little and the reader might not care where the journey is heading.

5) Too timid

Safe stories about safe subjects don’t linger long in the memory. Once you’ve got an idea ask what if? and keep on pushing the boundaries…Avoid timid titles too. Think of it as the first line of the story – which is most likley to make you want to find out more: The Party or Jiving with St Joseph?


6) Too Over the Top

too over the top

You can’t encapsulate the complexity of a novel length idea in a few thousand words without losing something vital. Accept that you have a small canvas.

and finally

7) Starting in the wrong place
Do you really need to set the scene? And do you need to do it in the opening paragraphs? Introductions are needed in academic essays – not short stories. The great American writer Kurt Vonnegut said start as near to the end as possible. Experiment – see how far you can push that idea.

And here’s the rest of Kurt rules for what you should put into a short story.

Can you think of any more sins? 

photo credit: FLASHFLOOD® via photopin cc
photo credit: Urban Woodswalker via photopin cc

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12 comments on “The Seven Deadly Sins of Short Story Writing and how to avoid them

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'
    October 6, 2014

    Maybe they suffer from the sin of encouragement in the introduction? 🙂

    It’s certainly true that there are many pitfalls, but the learning starts from jumping right in as if it’s easy, that’s when we begin to learn the many lessons, meeting our own naivete on the page, if we knew how difficult it was, we might never begin. I don’t mind a misguided introduction if it prompts someone to have a go. But then they need to come here to learn a bit more. 🙂

    • bridget whelan
      October 7, 2014

      Thanks for coming by Claire. I am all for jumping right in. Write and see what it feels like. Write and make mistakes…just write and see what happens. What really annoyed me about the Wikihow article was the idea that novels were the real deal and short stories – because of their lenght – were merely a practice run, a walk in the park. Jumping in should be done with energy, with courage and the spirit of adventure, with a whoosh….

  2. A.K.Andrew @artyyah
    October 7, 2014

    Really excellent post Bridget & v. timely as I’ve been writing a couple of short stories recently. Wow! Are they different from a novel!! Hard is the other word that comes to mind. All great points to steer me in the right direction again. Thanks so much.

    • bridget whelan
      October 7, 2014

      So glad you found it helpful. I know you’ve written novels so it’s interesting to know that you don’t feel that short stories are an easier form. That’s just how I feel. It’s hard to write short!

  3. Vaga Bond
    October 7, 2014

    Bridget, very informative and really funny post. I’ve been trying to write some short stories in my blog recently so found this very useful. Many thanks… 🙂

    • bridget whelan
      October 7, 2014

      Glad you liked it Some short story ideas have been buzzing around in my head since I wrote it….better take my own advice.

  4. historywomenbrighton
    October 7, 2014

    Great, helpful post, Bridget. I’ve always thought that in writing a short story, you have nowhere to hide. No self indulgence, no little weaknesses, it’s quite brutal.
    I am still on a big learning curve and am finding it really helpful to read, read, and keep reading short stories of all types
    helps to hone the instincts.

    • bridget whelan
      October 7, 2014

      Thank you so much for coming by and commenting. I’m really glad you found this post helpful. It sounds as you’re on a great short story apprenticeship.

      Some things can’t be said too often: there only two ways to learn how to write (short stories or anything else) 1) is to write as much as you can and 2) is to read as much you can…an appropriate modesty prevents me from mentioning the name of my bestselling creative writing guide at this point (hint: far right column)…

  5. Pingback: How to Avoid 7 Deadly Sins of Short #Story #Writing

  6. Jonathan Vernon
    January 28, 2015

    Reblogged this on Mind Bursts and commented:
    All good stuff and you can’t fault Kurt Vonnegut’s advice in the video at the end.

  7. carolyninjoy
    February 3, 2015

    Reblogged this on Reviews & Recommendations and commented:
    Great article.

  8. Pingback: Write a story in 10 words or a poem in 10 lines…writing competition | BRIDGET WHELAN writer

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This entry was posted on October 6, 2014 by in Muse and tagged , , , , , , .


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