Writing

Six Common Problems in Short Stories

The problem here is that someone left a towel on the chair. Rookie mistake.

While they may not get the fame and prestige of their cousin the novel, short stories* are a vital part of speculative fiction. Some of spec fic’s most important and influential work comes in the form of short stories, from venerable classics like The Yellow Sign to modern standouts like If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.

Writing short stories is a difficult craft. While a smaller word count means fewer things to keep track of, it also means you have to do more per word, and many authors struggle with this. In my time as a writer and editor, I’ve noticed the same problems popping up over and over again, both in my own work* and in the work of others. Let’s explore these common mistakes so that they can become a little less common.  

1. Too Many Characters

Maybe prune the family tree a little. Maybe prune the family tree a little.

Most of us authors love our characters. We spend a lot of time thinking them up, imbuing them with life, and then ruining their lives with problems. Often we’ll tell an entire story because we thought of a cool character to put in it. So it’s no surprise that many stories have more characters than they can support.

The problem is that each character you introduce is asking more work of the reader. The reader has to remember another name and get invested in another character’s arc. All the time a reader spends focused on one character is less time for another character to get the development they need. If the first character isn’t absolutely vital to a story, they’re wasting space on the page.

For example, I once wrote a post-apocalyptic story about a revenge-obsessed soldier who thought all her problems could be solved by killing her enemy. I also included the soldier’s wife and young daughter. The daughter would be injured, inflaming the soldier’s need for revenge, and the wife would appeal to the soldier’s better nature, giving her a chance at redemption.

When I gave the story to my editor, she pointed out that the wife and daughter served a very similar purpose. I was asking the audience to get invested in two characters where one would have done the job and as such took away precious page space from the main conflict.

How to Fix It

In the simplest cases, you can cut the extraneous character. This will be harder than it sounds, as many extraneous characters are added because the author really loves them, but you must be strong. If a character isn’t serving the story, get rid of them no matter how much you love their special dramatic flair. Put the character aside, and make them the star of their own story later.

It’s a little more complicated if a character is providing some benefit to the story. In that case, combining them with another character is your best option. Whatever important role they serve can usually be brought over without too much trouble. In my post-apocalyptic story, I grafted the daughter’s storyline onto the wife. In the new draft, the wife was both injured and appealed to the soldier’s better nature, creating a much more efficient story.

2. Not Enough Conflict

How are you gonna have a good action scene with that? How are you gonna have a good action scene with that? Non-Violence Statue by Zheng Zhou used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Conflict drives stories. If a story doesn’t have conflict, it’s boring, because who wants to read a story about someone just going about a normal day and getting everything they want? No one, that’s who.

It’s almost always a good idea to start with conflict to hook your reader, and in short stories it’s absolutely essential. With fewer words to work with, short stories have to get right into the action, be it in the form of exciting fight scenes or powerful emotions. It’s easy to get distracted describing all the cool elements of your world or going into a deep examination of the protagonist’s inner thoughts.

Not only do short stories have to start with conflict, but they also must maintain it through to the end. A great opening does you no good if from the middle onward your story is just about two characters chatting amiably with nothing on the line.

In one of my more recent stories, I had an elf visit an impoverished human village and then follow the village’s mayor around as she went about her day. I was so excited about the idea of technologically advanced elves serving as a metaphor for imperialism that I didn’t realize how boring the story was because it had no conflict.* It was just an elf and a human mayor having dense discussions as they toured the village.

How to Fix It

When your story doesn’t have enough conflict, you can either cut scenes until it does or add conflict to what you already have. If you’ve opened with the protagonist getting out of bed and going through their morning routine before riding out to battle, you can probably cut right to the battle part. Or you could start with the protagonist being ambushed while brushing their teeth, if morning ablutions are really important to you.

In my own story, I changed the two main characters’ attitudes towards each other. I made the elf snooty and dismissive of humans, seeing them as children in need of guidance. Then I made the human mayor distrustful and suspicious of elves, to the point where her first thought would be to turn down any elven help even if she really needed it. This emotional conflict gave the reader something to invest in and allowed me to get my ideas across far more effectively.

3. Unnecessary Framing Device

This is a frame up! This is a frame up!

A framing device is something that frames the story, because whoever names literary tools was not feeling creative that day. This is when a story starts off with an elderly hero recalling the adventures of their youth and then returns to the elderly hero at the end to tie everything off.  

Framing devices are very popular, perhaps because they add a sense of novelty or sophistication. This isn’t just a story about killing monsters and getting loot – it’s got an old man with a pipe telling it! That’s how you know it’s highbrow.

Unfortunately, most framing devices are a waste of space. You don’t actually need a framing device’s permission to tell your story. If your story is good, you can usually just start it and go from there. The framing devices takes time and attention away from what really matters in the story. Instead of being introduced to the hero in the first line, we have to read about their older self who has little bearing on the story’s narrative.

In one of my older stories, I thought I was being very clever by adding an artificial intelligence to serve as a framing device. This AI started off the story reminiscing about this great adventure he’d* been on and how he’d love to show it to you. Then I had the actual story about spaceships and such before going back to the AI at the end for some witty repartee.

As you can probably guess, the AI framing added nothing to the story and served only to distract from the real beginning and ending.

How to Fix It

If your framing device is completely superfluous like mine was, you can probably just delete it. You’ll want to be careful about losing vital information, as another common mistake with framing devices is to load them down with exposition. Anything important will have to be dispersed throughout the narrative.

On the other hand, a framing device can improve a story if used correctly. If your framing device kicks off the central conflict, then it can actually draw readers in. For example, Lovecraft’s Dagon starts with a suicidal drug addict going through withdrawals, ranting about the unnatural things he’s seen to bring him to such a state. That piques the reader’s interest immediately. Then the story flashes back to show us how the protagonist got there, and finally the framing device returns to show us his sad end. 

4. Overbuilt Worlds

Maybe build it a little less next time? Maybe build it a little less next time? Boosar sq. in Rasht by City Rain used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Speculative fiction and fantastic worlds go hand in hand, whether it’s needle ships burning antimatter in the shadow of Alpha Centauri or great serpents climbing castle walls. For a lot of spec fic authors, worldbuilding is half* the fun. So it’s understandable that a lot of short stories are burdened with an overabundance of worldbuilding.

The problem with overbuilding your short story world is that it will confuse and bore the reader something awful. And it will do that even if your world is 100% consistent and beautifully put together. Readers can only absorb so many speculative elements, and the more you shove into the narrative, the more you risk alienating your audience.

This can certainly happen in novels, too, but it’s a far worse problem in short stories because of their smaller word count. In a novel like Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, readers have whole chapters to get used to the elaborate magic system and post-apocalyptic feel of the world. Short stories work with a tiny fraction of that.

I fell face-first into this mistake when I wrote a story based on a roleplaying campaign. The story was about the crew of a steampunk warship in a world that was full of sea monsters, magical radiation, and bizarre mechanical inventions that boggled the mind. It was so dense that I spent most of the first draft introducing new elements. Few readers could even get to the story because I spent so much time throwing new fantastic things at them.

How to Fix It

When writing a short story, your world should be just complicated enough for the story you want to tell. If a spec fic element isn’t strictly needed, you should probably cut it, no matter how cool it is. In my story, I realized the really crucial element was a technologically advanced warship amid numerous but less powerful enemies. That was the story I wanted to tell, and to bring it out I cut the sea monsters, the magical radiation, and even the mind-boggling inventions.    

Things are a little more complicated if you’re writing in a shared setting, where you can’t just simplify the world until it fits in your story. In those instances, try to set your story in a part of the setting that requires as little explanation as possible. Terry Pratchett did this with Wee Free Men,* where he made the story accessible by setting it far away from the most overtly fantastical elements on the Discworld. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to tell it was a Discworld book at all if you didn’t know ahead of time.

5. Confusing Timeline Jumps

time-after-time Um, what time is it? Time After Time by Prairie Kittin used under CC BY-ND 2.0

This wasn’t something I expected to see very often when I started editing short stories, but a lot of them feature a narrative that skips around in time. I understand the appeal of this. It allows authors to reveal backstory whenever it’s convenient, which is tempting. It also doesn’t help that we often associate time-jumping film with poignant high art.*

In most cases, jumping around in time is confusing. It’s an extra thing that readers have to keep track of. In a longer story, there’s at least time to carefully walk the reader through each jump, but in a short story it’s hard to do that.

And in truth, time jumps rarely have the effect authors hope for. While you can use them to create a sense of dramatic irony by revealing information to the reader before the characters learn of it, that benefit is fleeting. Most time jumps don’t add anything, and the stories they feature in would work just as well with a linear narrative.   

In another post-apocalyptic story, I had the protagonist go into a long flashback sequence every time he met another character. The protagonist was a bounty hunter, you see, and he had history with every criminal he brought in. I thought I was being clever and creating deep backstories that would move the reader. In reality, I was confusing the reader by adding a bunch of exposition the story didn’t need.

How to Fix It

How you fix it will depend on the nature of the time jumping. Are you using flashbacks to deliver exposition that is unnecessary or that should appear in the story proper? If so, it’s time to cut those flashback scenes and bring anything relevant from them into the present. That’s what I did in my post-apocalyptic bounty hunter story, and it turned out I didn’t actually need most of what was in the flashbacks to begin with.

On the other hand, if all the information in each of your scenes is essential, you should consider arranging your story in a linear order. Linear stories aren’t lowbrow or unsophisticated; they’re just easier for the reader to understand. In most cases, you’ll realize that putting the scenes out of order didn’t actually serve any purpose.

6. More Than One Throughline

Your story can go one direction or the other, not both. Your story can go one direction or the other, not both. Forking Path used under CC BY-SA 2.0

A throughline is what gets your story from beginning to end. It is the problem you open with that is resolved in the climax, giving the story closure. It is the backbone of your plot; in some cases it is the entire plot.

Authors are sometimes tempted to include more than one throughline because they have so many great ideas. It would be a shame to waste them! But extra throughlines don’t make the story better; they just muddle it.

When your story has more than one central issue, neither can get the attention it deserves. So instead of one well-developed plot, you get two half-baked ones. At best, the secondary throughline will introduce a number of issues that the primary can’t resolve, leaving the reader with a bunch of dangling loose ends.

I once wrote a story about a grizzled old space thief learning to work with her younger partner. That was a solid throughline, and it carried the story fairly well. But then I tried to add a second throughline, about discrimination against immigrants from Io.* I thought I was being clever by making the young partner an immigrant from Io. Surely the two throughlines would merge into a story of ultimate power.

Well no, they didn’t. Instead I had two throughlines competing for space. When the discrimination throughline showed up in the final scenes, most readers were confused about what it was even doing there.

How to Fix It

If you feel strongly about multiple throughlines, the solution is to split them up. That way instead of competing for space in a single story, each throughline will have its own story in which to thrive. And as an author, you’ll get two story seeds for the price of one. That’s what I did for the example above. I made the thief plot central and spun off the Io immigration plot to be its own story.

Another option, though this is a lot more work: expand your short story into a novella or full novel. It may simply be that the story you want to tell requires more than one throughline, and if that’s the case you’re going to need a lot more words.


Too many authors assume the same techniques that work for longer stories will work just as well in this shorter format, and that leads to trouble. Short stories aren’t just novels scaled down. Smaller word counts require more efficient storytelling techniques, and that’s where many authors stumble. Now that you’re aware of these common mistakes, as discovered by me, you can keep an eye out for them in your own work.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Dragonborn

    I want to write a short story but the trouble is that since it’s a Slice of Life (about Death, ironic I know) I’m worried it will lack conflict

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      My instinct is that you can totally do this, since the trick to a slice of life story is picking the right slice of life. If there’s an impending death, that can generate all kinds of conflict, and the conflict doesn’t have to be about stopping the death or anything so heroic. It can be about the protagonist refusing to accept the death, or driving away friends because they’re so upset over it, anything that has the potential to create a character arc.

      • Dragonborn

        Thank you for the response but I meant that the Protagonist is Death herself and what she sees and learns from the various spirits she picks up vary from people who died of smoke inhalation, to a little girl with a terminal illness, to an older person.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Ah I see. Have you read “Death” by Neil Gaiman? It’s about Death taking a day off, and I think it might give you somewhere to start.

        The trick here will be to give Death a character arc, since they aren’t fighting an evil sorcerer or anything so external. Perhaps they’re wondering about giving up the job of death? Terry Pratchett’s “Mort” covers that pretty well if further inspiration would help.

        Or, Death might be debating with themselves about letting just one person live, and trying to come to terms with the consequences. You’ve got lots of options when you write about Death.

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