6 Common Faults in Short Story Writing
1. Lack of Credibility in the Short Story
It is the writers responsibility to create a world that persuades the reader to suspend his disbelief. Lack of credibility the fact that a story is unconvincing is the most frequent reason editors cite for rejecting a manuscript.
It takes a lot of skill to persuade a reader into believing that your story is true even if the belief lasts just as long as the story. It is possible to achieve this credibility even in fantasy. Yes, fantasy too must follow the rules of logic. A horse without wings, for instance, cannot fly.
It will surprise you to learn that many a famous author has had to change some part of his story on the behest of an editor because of this common fault.
What makes a story unconvincing? It could be characters acting in an uncharacteristic way or events happening in a way not possible in reality. When characters are driven by plot they always act in unconvincing ways. But especially in the short story, there is not so much space for plot as for characterisation. And plot, after all, is character in action.
If you really know your character, you will know how he will act.
2. Dull Writing
The second common error is dullness. This is usually caused by lack of action in a story. This is what stopped me from watching more than half an hour of the movie Pulp Fiction. Nothing was happening in the story -- and this trend continued for most of the film as I was told by those who stayed on to watch. It was more a slice of life than a plot-driven story. Watching it wouldn't be half as dull as reading the script, for the visual medium of film made it a bit more palatable.
By action we mean that something interesting happens in a story.
3. Mixing of Tenses
The third common fault is the mixing up of present tense with past tense. It is very easy for even not-so-new writers to slip into this mode. Here's an example:
He fell in love with his own image. He called piteously to it, he pleaded, he wept. His tears had disturbed the waters surfaceand then, suddenly, there was nothing in the water, only ripples had widened and vanished. He called out to the mirage and was scorned by nothingness.
This passage should read:
He fell in love with his own image. He called piteously to it, he pleaded, he wept. His tears disturbed the water's surface...and then, suddenly, there was nothing in the water, only ripples, widening and vanishing. He called out to the mirage and was scorned by nothin
4. Shallow Research
The fourth common error, frequently seen in the budding short story writer is lack of knowledge of what he's writing about. He must know the place and the people he's writing about completely. He must know the way the place looks and smells, the culture and customs of its people, as well as their habits. If he bases a story in a city that exists today or existed in the past, he must be able to depict it in a convincing way.
And if he doesn't know, he should either learn about the place or set his story in a place that does not exist. This way he can create his own world with its own characteristics.
When I wrote my science fiction novella Aditya the Underwater Boy- that won an award and was published by the Nehru Childrens Book Trust, I chose the sea as my setting. Yet I don't even know how to swim, let alone have an idea of what the underwater water looks like.
So I did my research, reading up on marine life, and in the process discovered new elements I could use in my story. My tutor Dr. Hilary Johnson of the UK Writer's Advisory Service said my descriptions were so vivid and realistic that it seemed I knew the sea very well.
Here is an excerpt from the chapter where Aditya has just been shifted to his new home, the sea, by his geneticist father:
Slivers of sunlight shot through the blue waters. To Aditya it was a rain of gold. Filled with a deep wonder, he watched the light weave patterns on the sea floor and its creatures. He stretched his limbs luxuriously, feeling the warm salt water caress his skin. The beauty around him softened the sadness he felt at leaving his father. There was so much to see, so many wondrous things called to his senses, leaving no place for tears.
Through the clear waters swam brilliant schools of fish. A yellow-black angelfish nibbled delicately at his toes. He laughed and the fish darted away to hover a small distance from him. Aditya observed its bulging eyes and red-spotted fins moving like angels wings.
There were corals shaped like thorny branches on which red sea-anemones hung like blooms, tentacles swaying gracefully. The reef was dotted with barnacles and oysters. Hundreds of nestling fish peeped out from tiny holes and crevices in the coral, their gossamer fins flickering in the water like transparent butterflies.
5. Lack of Emotional Appeal
The fifth sin in writing is to leave your reader cold.
An author’s personality comes through in what he writes. Therefore, much of a writer’s success depends on his having a strong personality. It is the only way to create a strong impression in the readers mind and write a story that is memorable.
Emotion is the key.
According to Professor C.T. Winchester, in his book Some Principles of Literary Criticism, there are five tests of the emotional effect in literature the strong portrayal of an emotion, its vividness, its steadiness, its range and its quality.
Gustave Flaubert, when writing his classic Madame Bovary, said that he wept when his heroine wept. If the writer doesn’t feel the emotion he writes about, neither does the reader.
Maupassant, often called the father of the short story (his stories are really short), is more known for his technique than his emotional capacity. Most of his stories leave me cold and resentful about his ironic, cut and- dry outlook on life. He is an intellectual writer, dissecting the human soul in his relentless analysis of human motives and his endings are almost always tragic.
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6. Weak Endings
The sixth common error a lot of writers are guilty of is the weak ending. A good editor can judge a story just by looking at its beginning and its end. Your ending should conclude the story, not just end it. There must be a big dramatic moment very near its close. Does it echo the introduction in some way?
The ending could be as simple as a change in the attitude of the main character, even a small gesture that symbolises something important. And it could be related in the form of narrative or dialogue. In my story The Lady and the Narcissus the beginning is thus:
They are gathering wild scarlet poppies beneath the heavy trees. A yellow-haired boy in his teens and a little girl in a white lace dress, against which the blooms smoulder like embers on snow. And now she is walking towards me, lured by my white petals tinged with red. My blood. If only I had now the legs I once was so proud of! And those sculpted lips that made many a nymph pine away! Then I would run and hide my beauty. For tragedy begets tragedy. How near lies the clear stream, how near the brink of revelation I stand. But it is perhaps for the best. The girl is my mirror. I see myself in her eyes.
"Look what I've found, the most beautifullest flower!" she cries to the boy.
"Narcissus!" he whispers.
And the ending:
The man watched in surprise as she took me from my stalk and stilled my pain against her breast. And I was glad. For what is one life in an eternity of lives?
Here the small gesture the plucking of the flower, symbolises a major change in the main characters attitude. She has learnt to love herself.
The story that inspires is bound to depict people and events in a more wholesome fashion than encountered in real life. This is the purpose of all art recreating the world and making it a better place. And that’s why everyone loves a happy ending. Readers read to get away from the humdrum and banalities of life. They want to enter another world -- a better world, not a world too familiar to them.
Which does not mean that tragedy does not have power. It does, but it certainly does nothing to inspire anyone. Writers like Thomas Hardy with a pessimistic outlook on life found it almost impossible to get published in the popular magazines of their time, no matter how great their literary talent. On the other hand, even the saddest endings in Shakespeare’s work, have something noble