List articles are popular these days. We want answers to life’s most difficult questions in easy-to-scan, numbered points. I read those articles too, the ones with titles like “10 secrets to a bettered life, “11 things happy couples do,” “19 ways you are sabotaging yourself at work ” (number one: reading fluffy blog posts while on the clock). Most of the times, the lists are not unlike suggestions you would find in a Highlights or a religious publication. Smile more, hug more, take the time to smell the roses and other assorted clichés that you wouldn’t ever, ever want to appear in your own writing. But in this particular case, I promise that these five things can really help you improve your fiction. Or, at the very least, give you some concrete ways to avoid fiction-killing mistakes.
Here are a few of the warning signs that you’ve lost the reins of your story and it’s on the verge of running away from you.
1. Your ending is a blood bath. Let’s make a group proclamation that no one will die in our stories ever again, particularly in the final paragraph. Particularly by suicide, and particularly by suicide of a first person narrator. You can have a bunch of people already dead at the beginning, but when violence is your only way to end the story; it means you’ve forgotten to invest your character with any real desires to be pursuing in the story. In other words, the conflict should be a human, understandable, relatable thing; partially internal, and partially arising from circumstance and relationships. It should not take the form of an atomic bomb, a shootout at a bank, or a stampede of ponies. Killing people off in the end is cheating—it means you haven’t thought enough about the characters’ motivations to find another way out. Solution: go back and find out what each person wants more than anything and what s/he is willing to do to get it. Have the action unfold from the characters struggling to get what they want.
2. Your final scene takes place in a prison, an insane asylum, or the narrator’s bed (as in: “it was all a dream…”): In this scenario, you’ve probably again written yourself into a corner. Your characters are acting crazy or dragons have suddenly appeared on the subway and you don’t know how to wrangle back into the real world. Again, for first drafts, I say, go ahead and let it all fly, but when you go back to the page for revision, remember that we thoughtful, introverted readers care more about the people in your story than we do about an unexpected ending. Solution: don’t give yourself an easy out. If you find that the only way you can escape is through one of these cheat valves, perhaps you’ve set the wall too high for the character to climb or not given him enough strengths to face the challenge. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that we want our characters to be active and capable of change and so you can go back and endow them with a few more skills, make them better conversationalist, something, anything to allow them a way to escape without the threat of life imprisonment or a public hanging.
3. Animals start speaking. Why is this wrong? Shouldn’t the squirrel have his say? Look at Animal Farm! No, do not look at Animal Farm, because that is a novel. When writing short fiction, oddness is good, but you don’t have the space to give us the real back story about why this particular squirrel speaks with a British accent. You’ve got to get to heart of the matter and fast. Often, lengthy exposition and details flashbacks to explain odd situations are not friends of the short story; they can get in the way unless you are very, very clever. Solution: Focus on your characters. If they are complicated and full of desire of some kind, you don’t need a weird twist or animals haunting their ex-wives (for counterpoint, see: “Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of Parrot”).
4. Your characters can’t stop talking about the weather. Pages and pages of unnecessary dialogue are fine in draft form, because they can help you figure out your characters. In short fiction, unless it’s clear that when they talk about the weather, they’re actually talking about the character’s upcoming abortion (see: “Hills like White Elephants”), get rid of unnecessary dialogue. While you’re at it, get rid of characters calling each other by name every other line, John. Sarah, this doesn’t happen in real life, Sarah. Solution: Get out of the chattiness and have something happen. A walnut can fall from a nearby tree, right into the other character’s mouth. Better yet, the action should arise from a random act, but from one of the character’s actions. For example, maybe your character is thinking, This guy is a windbag, I must do something to get him to stop talking. When your dialogue is dragging on and on and on and nothing of importance is being said, it’s akin to getting your truck stuck in mud. You’ve got to stop revving the engine, get out of the cab, and push the damn thing.
5. You need a diagram to keep track of the characters. A short story is like a canoe. Because of the brevity of the form, it can only hold so many people. When extra characters get in, the canoe starts to sink. Too few, and it’s difficult to get anywhere without a struggle. My rule is four named characters in a story maximum. Solution: If you find you cannot stop with four characters, consider yourself lucky—it’s a novel.
Of course, as with any list of “must not do’s” there will be writers who break these rules and do so brilliantly. If you can get away with it, break at will. If not, allow yourself to make those mistakes in your drafts, but when you get down the real business of revising, kill all of those little darlings.