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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

How to Write Flash Fiction: 15 Short Story Cliches That Need To Die

 

As writers, it’s our job to keep stories fresh and exciting.

Humans have been writing stories for thousands of years, so it’s inevitable that some story conventions get overused. yet many of us still struggle with ideas and wind up using clichés that ruin the experience for our readers (and therefore, get rejected by publishers or magazines to which you submit).

Here are some of the most used short story clichés and why authors should stop using them:

books on a shelf
Put that cliched idea back on the shelf and try again.

1. It was all a dream/game/hallucination.

Let’s start this list off with the one I hate the most. You can find this storytelling cliché everywhere: movies, TV, books, comics… It’s a cheap and underhanded way to make a reader fear for the protagonist without putting them in actual risk. The only way this would pay off is if the dream turns out to have very real repercussions (e.g. Ender’s Game).

2. Non-human point-of-view twists.

This is kinda related to the first story-writing cliché, except here the twist is in the narrative perspective. It’s not as cheap as the dream cliché, but you have to go the extra mile to ensure that the POV’s narration is:

  • accurate to the character – how can a dog understand English, for example
  • hidden from the reader – it is a twist, after all
  • compelling to read

3. Racial/cultural/genderstereotypes.

Wow, really?

I thought we had gotten past that in these modern times. This tells me more about you as a person than it does about the story.

4. Evil human race.

Yes, we get it. The human race has effed up the planet so badly that animals don’t want to live with us, aliens don’t want to meet us, and our own children think adults are monsters. But I don’t like stereotypes (as I mentioned), and stereotyping humans in your story as evil isn’t any better than stereotyping a race.

5. “Little did he know.”

Way to kill the tension in your story, buddy.

You just removed the drama and surprise from any conflicts your main character would encounter. This is a short story, not a daytime soap opera.

6. Trophy references.

I’ve enjoyed many stories that reference pop culture or anything related to the story’s theme, but there’s a difference between adding it in because it’s cool and showing off. Don’t let these references interfere with the story’s plot and the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

7. Happily ever after.

I’m not opposed to happy endings, but I am opposed to ones that aren’t justified. It’s never as simple as waving a magic wand, or scolding a villain into changing the error of his ways.

Make your protagonist earn that happy ending.

8. “In the beginning…”

There are novels that can pull this off, but you’re not writing a novel, are you? You’re writing a short story, which has a tight word count.

Drop us in the middle of the story, in media res, and don’t waste time reinventing the universe.

9. “Woe is me.”

Readers love stories where characters are put in emotional conflict, but you have to be careful not to turn your conflicted protagonist into a whiny protagonist. The former is compelling and dramatic, but the latter is annoying and melodramatic. This is especially true of short stories where the character spends most of the word limit moaning about his situation rather than actually doing anything about it.

10. The glorified joke.

Humor in fiction can be a very tricky thing. Not only is humor subjective, but a lot of authors fall into the trap of putting a joke in at the expense of the story. Even more make the bigger mistake of making the joke the entire point of the story. The story becomes a thousand-word setup for a single punchline—which usually falls flat.

11. Author’s revenge.

Many of us have been through unfair situations: an overbearing boss, a bad relationship, bullies, etc. And though we fantasize about getting payback, we (as functional human beings) rarely act on it.

Writing short stories about getting even may be therapeutic, but nobody else is going to want to read it.

12. Weather reports.

If you’ve read fantasy novels, you probably know what I’m talking about. Cue opening scene on a mountain range, the onset of a storm, or the blistering desert. It’s picturesque, it’s a good writing exercise, and it has no place in a short story.

Space is at a premium, and you have no time to be talking about how fine the grains of sand are.

13. Pop culture knock-offs.

Do you have sparkly vampires in your story?

Plucky, bespectacled young wizards?

How about short, hairy Canadians with claws for hands?

It’s probably not for us, then. Influences are one thing, poorly-disguised fan fiction is another.

14. Aesop / Chicken Soup for the Soul stories.

It’s perfectly fine to have a central theme in your story, and try to express a worthwhile message. But beating your reader over the head with environmental activism, or religious conservatism, or any other sort of overt preaching does not make good fiction.

15. Artist with artist troubles.

I’m a writer. I get how agonizing the creative process is, and I don’t want to read about someone else going through the same thing. Only Neil Gaiman ever pulled this story off successfully, and he had trapped his muse in a dungeon in his basement.

Keep in mind there are always exceptions.

The reasons these have become clichés is because they’ve been done so many times and so poorly that now they’re just… lame.

But if you can put your own unique spin on it, in a way that’s new, fresh, and—above all—justified, then go ahead! Just be aware that there’s a much higher bar that you have to overcome.

For more tips and tricks on How to Write Flash Fiction, sign up for the Flash Fiction Online Youtube Channel.

Self-Publishing Super Hero–William Blake

Venerable poet William Blake, author of sometimes mysterious and sometimes brilliantly simple works, was a self-publishing super hero who might serve as an inspiration to would-be self-publishers. He’s perhaps best known for his illuminated “Songs of Innocence” (example plate below) and “Songs of Experience.”

The Lamb–Example Relief Etch, Hand-Painted
Image in public domain according to Wikipedia, from which it came.
Notifiy Flash Fiction Online if you believe it is not in the public domain.

He had a soup-to-nuts approach to publishing, illustrated by the unpoetic list below:

  • wrote the poems
  • created a new printing technique, relief etching, whereby the illustrations’ line art and text were etched on copper plates in reverse, whereby the negative and color spaces were etched away. (This is in opposition to the practice of making plates for each color.)
  • printed the pages on the printing press in his living room.
  • hand-colored each illustration, making each copy unique.
  • bound the books and mailed them to his customers.
  • marketed them, somehow, in the late 18th century.

If you see an original Blake publication at a garage sale, pick it up. It would be considered a museum piece. Then you can sell it and make the transition from waiter/writer to writer.

 

Tolkien’s Prose Poor?

CS Lewis would disagree, but–as reported by the Guardian–the Nobel Prize committee declined LOTR for its “second-rate prose.” (Cough.)

And don’t miss a slightly shorter work, the Jan. 2012 Flash Fiction Online edition following its reboot efforts.

Facebook Lament

Writers are an emotional lot and for the most part live on Facebook. I propose, therefore, this slightly altered song as the official Facebook lament, based on “Release Me,” by songwriter Eddie Miller, whose song was covered by many.

UnFriend Me

Please unfriend me, let me go,
For I don’t like you anymore.
To waste our tags would be a sin;
Unfriend me and let me like again.

I have found a new friend dear.
LOL I want her near.
Her pokes are warm while yours are cold;
Unfriend me my darling, let me go.

Please unfriend me, can’t let you see?
You’d be a fool to status me.
To live a lie would bring us pain,
So unfriend me and let me like again.

 

Critique Section of the Flash Forum

There’s a section of the Flash Forum called “Critique My Flash!” It requires registration, so if you’re not in the forum then you can’t see it. If you’d like people to take a look at what you’re writing and provide some feedback, it’s a place to go.

Note that, because it’s on a password protected forum, posting your story there does not count as publication.

It was correctly pointed out to me the other day that I haven’t posted guidelines for it. I’ll be doing that shortly — perhaps over the weekend. Meanwhile, just avoid erotica, graphic sex or violence, unneeded swearing, and so on; post only one or two stories a week to avoid overwhelming the critiquers; and make sure that you’re helping others on the forum as much as you’re being helped.

For Writers: The Turkey City Lexicon

I’ve just created a nicely formatted version of the Turkey City Lexicon and made it available from my Goodies page.

The Turkey City Lexicon is a copyright-free collection of gaffes, stylistic problems, and other issues that face writers every day. I’m not talking about misplaced modifiers or point-of-view inconsistencies, but higher-level issues. Here are a few samples:

Brenda Starr dialogue
Long sections of talk with no physical background or description of the characters. Such dialogue, detached from the story’s setting, tends to echo hollowly, as if suspended in mid-air. Named for the American comic-strip in which dialogue balloons were often seen emerging from the Manhattan skyline.

“Call a Rabbit a Smeerp”
A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)

Dischism
The unwitting intrusion of the author’s physical surroundings, or the author’s own mental state, into the text of the story. Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain of their confusion and indecision — when this is actually the author’s condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story. “Dischism” is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome. (Attr. Thomas M. Disch)

You get the idea. Although it targets science fiction writers, there are plenty of items in it worth reading about for all genres.

And yes, that means that I’ve let everyone else do the real work of making all of this meaningful content, and all I’ve done is reformat it and republish it. But then, that’s what I do with all of the stories, too, so I’m okay with that… 🙂

If anyone thinks that an HTML version of this would be worth creating, let me know and I’ll add it to the list of things I really oughta do someday.

Announcing: New Column by Bruce Holland Rogers

I’m thrilled to announce that, starting with our June issue, Bruce Holland Rogers will contribute a monthly column called “Short-Short Sighted: Writing the Short-Short Story”.

Bruce is an award-winning writer and a teacher, and may be best known as a writer of extremely short stories. (If you doubt it, visit his web site, “shortshortshort.com”. 🙂 ) There’s no one more qualified to write this sort of column than he is.

Watch this spot — only a few more weeks to go!

Story Beginnings — Ten To Avoid

An amusing bit by William Meikle on sffworld.com. 🙂

Flashes and Twist Endings?

Many authors write stories with twists. For a while, Law and Order even advertised the fact that there was a twist at the end of their episodes.

The problem with twist endings and flash is that they often don’t feel like twists: they feel like punch lines. And that makes the stories jokes, not stories.

It makes sense. In a longer story, you have a lot of space to build up people’s motivations, desires, personalities — characters, in other words. When there’s a twist, you’re seeing the twist as a change in a well-established character’s knowledge. In flash, none of the characters are as strongly developed, so the twist is often more of a change in the reader’s knowledge. And that’s just a punch line.

Sometimes the twist is even worse: the author withholds information from the reader even though the main character would definitely know it. Sometimes that happens in longer works, but I think the temptation is stronger in flash because it would have to be sustained for a shorter, and therefore seemingly more manageable, length of time. But it’s still a case of the author cheating the reader.

Writing a story develops trust between the author and the reader. Withholding information from the reader breaks that trust; making a joke of the story makes the reader take you a little bit less seriously. Unless you’re deliberately trying to not be taken seriously — and I’ll submit that most of the best humor is very seriously humorous — I’d avoid both.

Flash Fantasy & SF: Harder Than Other Genres?

I just stumbled across a year-old post by Steve Goble called “Swords and Flashery“. It hits on a topic I’ve been thinking about as I go through the submissions we’ve received over the last two months.

[After writing the first draft of a fantasy flash,] I read the [2000-word] piece and found nary an ounce of fat in it. It was the simplest kind of plot I could devise and still have a sense of drama to it. In short, there was just no way I could go back and jettison half of what I’d written.

“Come on, Steve,” you might say. “The very first submission to Flash Fiction Online was a drabble, only 100 words long. Surely we can write stories in fewer than 2,000 words!”

But the drabble I received needed absolutely no setup. Steve writes swords-and-sorcery stories. He needs lots of setup.

Science fiction and fantasy require at least one speculative element. You have to describe what the element is and show how it makes the world you’re creating different from the world we live in. If the speculative element is a person, you may need to show how this person’s history fits in with the rest of the fictional world; the rest of that fictional world then needs sufficient explanation to let it be the context for the fictional person. Objects can be the same way (think of all the history behind Gollum’s ring or the Gom Jabbar of the Bene Gesserit), as can political situations, planetary conditions, species of creature…

Well, you get the idea. If you’re making stuff up, and you want people to experience your invented world, you have to make it all fit. That’s tough to do in a thousand words.

One submission we received came from a professional author with many published stories. I’d love to get his name on my Web site. But the amount of information that came pouring off the page — just to set up the plot — was staggering. The plot itself had minimal room to move, and was therefore somewhat unsatisfying. I give him immense credit for trying to get everything into a thousand words, but I don’t think it’s possible for this particular story.

Does that mean that it’s impossible to write flash SF & fantasy? No, of course not. I’ve already published some of it, and I just agreed to buy a great little SF story by Jeff Soesbe (his first sale!) called “Apologies All Around” for the February issue. I’m acquiring the rights to a very funny SF story by Carl Frederick for our April issue. (As an aside, I’m really happy to have both someone as new as Jeff and someone as experienced as Carl on the site.) But it’s hard.

What can you do to make it work? I’m thinking out loud here, but it seems to me that you can (not must, just can) do some of these things:

(a) Make the world you’re writing about very similar to the one you’re in. The less you have to explain, the more words you can devote to plot. Since literary fiction is, generally speaking, in “our world”, there’s very little explaining to do. Literary writers have the advantage over sci fi writers here.

(b) Use dialogue sparingly — and with precision. If you read “The Materialist” from this issue, you’ll see only two brief bits of dialogue: 48 words out of a thousand. Note, though: the spoken words that made it into the story are gems. The “higher goal in mind”–“cancer research?”–“Rhodium!” exchange brilliantly and succinctly characterizes Dr. Albrecht in a way that 500 words of description couldn’t.

(c) Avoid things like the plague if they’re not part of the narrative thread. I recently participated in a flash challenge at Hatrack River. I wrote my flash between midnight and 2:30 AM the day it was due. Reading it the next day, I realized that I had included bits of history of the device that the story revolved around — history that didn’t need to be there. Excise those 150 words, and suddenly I have more space to talk about the stuff that matters: character, plot, and setting. While this theoretically isn’t purely a sci-fi-or-fantasy problem, the submissions of the last month show me that many sf writers seem to want to go down that path more than literary writers. Even if you’re an engineer, you don’t need to explain the engineering.

I’m sure there’s more. What do you think?

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