Let me get this out of the way up front: don’t ever start a short story with depressed college students smoking cigarettes and drinking in a shitty bar where they end up having bad, emotionless sex with a stranger, all while bemoaning the meaninglessness of life and their lack of personal agency.
Now if this sounds a little too specific, bear with me, because every submission period we receive dozens of stories like this.
Avoid Overused Experiences
Going back to the point raised in the intro, I suspect that a lot of writers who submit short stories to literary magazines are college students still working on their undergraduate degree, or those who have recently graduated and have only just begun their writing journey.
Being at this specific age and development stage comes with lot of baggage; learning to handle vices, getting your shit together, experimenting, finding direction in life, dealing with awkward and new emotions, establishing your identity, etc.
We’ve all been there. I’ve been there. And while these themes and subjects can make for a great short story, what writers need to understand is that everybody goes through this stage, and at some point, everybody tries to write stories like this. Everybody tries to tackle these themes, and everyone tries to be edgy and full of ennui.
Everyone is aware of this common imagery, and everyone tries to use that imagery. And what happens when certain imagery/ideas get overused?
It becomes cliche.
And this isn’t limited to just the college/post-college writer phase. This can apply to almost any kind of experience or place in life. Lots of people try to write about grief, a trauma, a breakup, having a kid, etc.
Just remember, whatever you’re characters are experiencing, they did not invent that situation. Give your plot/theme a good spin, otherwise, you may sound like everyone else.
Avoid the Trap of Genre
Returning once more to our intro above, I think you understand that sometimes we attach expectations to certain stories and how they should look. We have an idea for Sci-Fi stories, YA stories, and Lit Fic stories. Every genre comes with a series of distinguishable traits, but what a lot of writers do is treat those traits like a checklist of things they need to establish in a story.
Focus on telling a story and expressing emotion, not on making yourself slave to that checklist in your head. Otherwise, you may end up with a lot of busy work trying to fit a mold, which can make your writing cliche. Don’t worry about fitting into a larger canon, but on making your story stand on its own.
That doesn’t mean you have to recreate the wheel. Simply ask yourself am I imitating other works too much, or am I expressing something I want to say?
Avoid Melodrama and Sensationalism
Emotions fuel fiction, but you can’t just throw emotion at the reader. You have to work your way there in a subtle matter. Take this fake dialogue below:
“I hate you, I’m glad I divorced you!”
“We divorced because you broke my heart!”
“I broke your heart because you aborted our baby.”
“I aborted the baby because you were abusive and I didn’t want to bring a child into this horrible world!”
That was pretty awful, right? Way too on-the-nose, no context, and it’s kind of just relying on the hysteria of emotions, not on the impact of emotions. We want to feel the weight of emotion, not have it summarized to us.
The same lesson applies for stories that rely on the shock value of blood, guts and politics, and on what I like to call “2edgy4u” stories that try way too hard to be deep and dark and grim. Honestly, any kind of exploitation writing comes off pretty hollow.
Avoid Expository Dialogue
Let’s jump back to that awful fake dialogue above; notice how it just threw backstory at us? No one talks like that, but lots of writers write like that. The best advice I can give you is to read your writing out loud so you can feel when it gets artificial. If you have to get exposition out of the way, sprinkle it about instead of shoving it all at one spot.
It isn’t too unbelievable for one character to say something like, “Hey didn’t you go to X university?”
“I did, why do you ask?”
“Oh, I saw this news story about XYZ…”
“Interesting. Wow, I haven’t thought about college in years. It feels like just yesterday I was XYZ.”
Granted, that isn’t perfect dialogue, but it works; at this point, the story can shift into exploring backstory by escaping dialogue and going into narration and description, switching around enough to avoid a dump of information.
Avoid Show & Tell
No, I’m not referencing the old show, don’t tell rule of writing. I’m talking about that game you play as kids where you find something neat and decide you have to bring it to class for everyone to see. Just because you’ve found a new hobby or interest that you’ve become obsessed with doesn’t mean going into detail about it for a story will work.
That doesn’t mean you can’t work your interests into your writing, but don’t depend on the interest itself to do the job of storytelling for you.
Do you want to show us all about the world of quilting? That’s very nice of you, but does that come with a narrative? Is there a beginning, middle, and end to that story? Do we get characters and plot, or is it all quilting porn?
This doesn’t just apply to plot points. If you learned some fancy new words, or if you want to throw in slang you just learned, or maybe try a new literary technique you just discovered, maybe give it some thought first.
Avoid Relying on References
Going back to the last point about Show & Tell, you can’t rely on references to movies, TV, music, comics, etc. to do the work for you of conveying emotion. If you describe someone as Darth Vader but with a worse personality, I guarantee you the reader will roll their eyes. It is up to you, the writer, to describe, emote and express things, not an outside source you can plug into your story as a crutch.
The occasional reference isn’t bad, per se, but look at how you use references and ask yourself if you’re taking the easy way out.
Avoid… Cliched Expressions
This one’s easy; try not to use cliched phrases: like a kid in a candy store, like stealing candy from a baby, like shooting fish in a barrel, etc.
Xavier Vega is the Fiction Editor of Apeiron Review. A copywriter by day, his short stories have been published in various literary magazines and he hopes to one day publish a novel.