How to Kill a Story

[img_assist|nid=5757|title=Aimee LaBrie|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=116]Some famous writers are said to be made by their editors—I’m thinking of Raymond Carver (whose editor significantly cut back his prose to help develop the Hemingway-esque, tip-of-the-iceberg immediacy that defined Carver’s style)—and I can tell you from reading short fiction for the workshop I teach that there are some things that just should never happen in a short story. I’m referring to line-by-line edits, but then also to overall mistakes to avoid if possible. Of course, for every approach I suggest you not take, there is a published author who has done that exact thing with great brilliance and aplomb.

That said, here are five general writing blunders that will ensure your story expires in the slush pile of any reputable literary journal:

1.       Never write a sentence without inserting an adverb or a generic adjective, preferably both and multiple times. Example: She perched prettily on the lovely red chair, daintily sipping from a cup of weakly-made, hot and steaming tea while she lightly stroked her left eyebrow with a yellow pencil. Adverbs and generic adjectives are the cheat sheets for writing vivid and specific descriptions.

2.      Combine the overuse of adverbs with innocuous and unnecessary dialogue with too many dialogue tags and sentences that neither advance the plot nor reveal character. Example:“I don’t know what time it is,” he said happily.“You don’t?” she responded hastily.“No, I don’t.” he replied suddenly and savagely. “Well, can you find out?” she talked wonderingly. Mundane dialogue with no real description helps to slow down the pace of the story until it’s crawling across the page.

3.      Make sure the story’s first few paragraphs confuse and befuddle your reader. Don’t give her any sense of time period or season, location, and, above all, don’t reveal the gender (or species?) of your narrator until well into the piece. This approach is especially important if you’re writing a story wherein things like the decade and setting are essential to understanding what’s happening (i.e. a science fiction piece that takes place in the 1800s on the planet Mars). 

4.      Be sure to pepper your story with clichés. Don’t limit yourself to just textual clichés (sighing with relief, panting like a dog, running at lightning speed), be sure to have clichéd situations and stock characters (innocent young girl meets handsome football player…but evil drug-addled, Mustang-owning hoodlum thwarts the affair). By not writing anything that’s refreshing or surprising, you enable to reader to more easily skim the story to see if it ends as she expected (running off into the sunset/mass suicide).

5.      Why write a story with one central narrator when you can head-hop among everyone in the story, from the grocery store bagger to the dog walker to the pine tree in the park? By giving readers access to every stray thought or memory experienced by even minor characters, you are able to build on Rule #3, allowing the confusion about who and what we should find important to grow and grow until no reader can be sure what the story is about.   

These are just a few of the mistakes I see—as well as mistakes I’m certain I’ve made in my own fiction writing. Your job as a writer is to continually strive for what is compelling and complicated—in your story, in your descriptions, in your dialogue, and in your characters. Avoid the obvious or the unclear and search for what is vivid and true. 

Aimee LaBrie is an award-winning author and teaches a fiction workshop for Philadelphia Stories.

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