How to Avoid 7 Deadly Sins of Short #Story #Writing

This post is a reblog from a Bridget Whelan Post. Click here for the original post

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

seven deadly sins of writing a short story

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 (see above) 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.”  wiki

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 brashly 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.”  ~ Sir Angus Wilson

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,A.K.Andrew,

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’s rules for what you should put into a short story.

photo credit: FLASHFLOOD® via photopin cc

photo credit: Urban Woodswalker via photopin cc

A.k. Andrew,,A Writer's Notebook,Bridget Whelan

Bridget Whelan is a London Irish novelist and Creative Writing teacher. She has taught at the prestigious Goldsmiths Collegein London, UK as well as other locations in both London and Brighton. Her first novel is A Good Confession, and this year she released a fantastic book called Back to Creative Writing School which is now OUT IN PAPERBACK! as well as an ebook. Click the link below.You can reach Bridget at  and on twitter @agoodconfession

Can you think of any more sins?  What other problems do you have writing short work?

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  1. Since I don’t write short stories I really can’t comment. I do love reading short stories though. 🙂 I can see how the points mentioned would be important to me as a reader.
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  2. It certainly is true that every word must count in a short story though some recent short stories I’ve read in the New Yorker seem to be taking the opposite approach. Very interesting post and I will check out Bridget’s blog! jan

    • New Yorker stories are definitely on the long side, but that is relatively unusual. Whatever length though, every word really must count, much more so than in a novel. Hope you do check out Bridget’s block – lots of great stuff there, & her posts tend to be on the short side which to me is a good thing! Thanks so much for stopping by Jan.
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  3. I love the list of deadly sins. Too many names – always an annoyance trying to remember them before completing the story. I think it is much harder to write a story than a book.
    Beth Niebuhr recently posted..Do What You LoveMy Profile

  4. So the biggest problem is “too much.” That if fact is why not just anyone can write a short story, or certainly not a good one. It’s about engaging your audience while keeping it short and simple. Maybe it’s the failure to do that which leads authors down the “too much” path.
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  5. A short story must be a streamlined beast, and I really do feel I mastered writing them to an admirable degree back in my graduate workshop days. Letting years years pass without pushing myself to write short stories left me feeling rusty when I decided to dive into writing a novel instead. I remember doing seven to eight drafts with major revisions of short stories before I would be happy with them, so I can only wonder how long it will take me to be happy with a novel?
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    • It’s tough to regain that use of muscle brain that any specific writing style needs. Having written nothing but novels for about 5 yrs now it’s been illuminating just how different the skill for writing a shortstory is. As to how many rewrites- I think I’m on my 4th or 5th draft for my novel depending on how you want to look at it. Its all a lot of work but if it’s worth doing…good job I enjoy efiting& revising:-)
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  6. Great list of sins that I will take with me and incorporate as I try to improve my writing. Always appreciate these writing instructionals. Thanks.
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  7. Hi A.K.
    Thanks for the list. I agree that a short story must start out capturing your interest but then must maintain it more by you wanting to know what comes next, rather than the vicar’s name. #4 was the one that really caught my attention – too much description. Sometimes you feel as if the writer puts all his/her effort into the beginning of the story then has to rush to wrap it up.

  8. Sins is an apt description…so is deadly! I find too much descriptive narrative most annoying in short story format. It’s like walking through a bed of bramble to get to the rose…give me a machete!
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  9. Ugh, Wiki! I just fussed at Wiki for another comment on short stories a while back! The nerve!

    I loved this post! When I decided to write a series of short stories, I thought to myself, “If a movie can tell the viewer a story in less than two hours, I can write one.” I just need to stick to the facts of what the reader can see. I love writing short stories, and I plan to keep writing them, even when the number one comment in my reviews claim that it was too short or the end was too abrupt. I take that as they liked it and wanted more. Yes, that’s how long I wanted it, about an hour. Yes, that was the ending!

    But that’s how life comes at us sometimes: fast without deep explanations. All we know is what we can see and hear directly in front of us.

    The Power of the Short Story… Why I like to read and write them
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  10. I have read this post as a reader of short stories and many times I came across many stories who have such problems.

    It is very informative post. I like when you said that it is not necessary to give each detail and name. These descriptions just confuse the readers.

    I hope this will help many to improve.
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  11. Hi A.K. – A short story definitely has to be succinct. Even with a longer story, one of my pet peeves is when there are so many characters you can’t keep them straight. These are all great points. Ones I’ll definitely keep in mind. Thanks!

  12. This is a great post on the art of short story writing. I think of them more as a snapshot of a time and place rather than a video. I also note novellas rather than short stories are becoming more popular. They’re longer and more fleshed out than a traditional short story but demand a far shorter period of time than a traditional novel.

    • A snapshot in time is a great way to think of them. Which is also what makes them a little harder to write, and with no backstory as noted in the blog. There definitely has been a surge in both novellas and short stories, I’m not sure whether it has to do with so many people self-publishing, but even traditional publishers are refereeing their trend a little bit. Thanks so much for your comment.
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  13. Donna Janke says:

    Good tips. I agree short stories are not an easy option. Wording has to be tighter than in a novel. A short story is not an abbreviated novel. I like the comment about as soon as one states a “rule” about writing you can find an exception. I just finished reading a collection of short stories where a number of the stories span a time frame of years or decades. It is not something usually recommended for short stories and doesn’t often work well, but in this case it worked.

    • I think you hi the nail on the head when you say that a short story is not an abbreviated novel. That said, some writers do explore possibilities for a new novel with a short story. Commander Ngozi Adichie’s amazing novel “Half of a Yellow Sun ” was in fact originally written as a short story, but she felt the subject was just too big to leave as a short story. I’d be interested in hearing who the writer was who wrote the story compilation that spanned a number of years. Annie Proulx is a great short story writer who can link stories very successfully. Thanks so much for your insightful comment Donna. (And persevering to comment)
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  14. I find it kind of funny at times when people say that writing a short story is easy since there are so few words involved. But there is so much more than just the number or words involved. Sometimes it is the things that are cut out that can make or break the story.

    Even for the difficulty involved in the stories themselves, they are my favorite place to play.

    Thanks for the thoughts on story telling.
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  15. Hello, A.K., I enjoyed the original article and a number of points made by persons commenting really spoke to me.
    I was interested in how many characters and whether they should be named. One thing some writers do is give several people names starting with the same letter, like Anne and Agnes. I find it more difficult to remember similar names than very different ones like Freddie and Caitlin.
    Another thought is that, although in the story the author does not put a lot of description or background in, he or she needs to be clear on what these aspects of the situation are. I often write character sketches before I write the story so that my protagonist is portrayed vividly even though I use very few of the words in the sketch. The same thing in some stories could be true for descriptions of locale. The author might only use the potted geranium beside the door of the townhouse, but that is chosen from a number of creative possibilities and for a specific reason.

    • Hi Kathleen . Good to see you:-) You make an excellent point about characters names. It’s essential to keep them separate and it’s definitely a mistake I made when I first started writing. I think you have a great approach to your character sketches. it’s kind of the same formula as research. You only use the tip of the iceberg, but by knowing the rest you can (hopefully) encapsulate the essence in the briefest possible way. Thanks so much for your insightful comment.
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  16. I don’t write short stories but I think we can apply your tips to writing our blog. I often feel that sometimes Too much information is overkill. Where why and when I think should always be answered so we are not left guessing. Enjoyed this one

  17. You make a good point Arleen that we can apply the same rules to blogging. Every word needs to count. Long meandering sentences will have your readers meandering off to another website. Happy you enjoyed the post – Thanks for stopping by.
    A.K. Andrew recently posted..How to Avoid 7 Deadly Sins of Short #Story #WritingMy Profile

  18. What a great insight into short writing.

    These are wonderful tips which I will keep in mind. I feel short stories are far more work than medium/long term stories.

  19. It can be much more difficult to write a short story than a long story where you have the luxury of using as many words as you want or need. Remember the famous saying of Blaise Pascal, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” So true.
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  20. These are all excellent tips, and can apply to some blog posts, too! I love Alice Munro’s description, although some of her short stories are extremely detailed! Short stories are more like snapshots, a moment in time, a snack as opposed to a five course meal. It’s challenging to decide how much is too much – and that may be what separates the successful short story writers to the aspirational ones …
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    • I think you’re absolutely right, Krystyna – and such a lovely analogy, a snack rather than a five course meal. And yes indeed Alice Munro’s stories are very detailed, though she always keeps her subject matter simple. Perhaps that’s part of the key to the success of a short story – you can do one, but not both. Thanks so much for the comment:-)
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