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What Makes a Short Story Fail?

Madame

The Conmarten
Posting one of my recent short stories on DA and asking for a critique on the forums there, I received this comment from the gel whose thread I posted in:

Well, my first piece of critical commentary would be to say that if you need a special section saying "This is the stuff you need to understand the story", then the story fails. If the backstory isn't absolutely necessary, then there is no reason to include it, see?

It's a good rule to go by - if something isn't vital to the overall story trajectory (be it a word, a digression, a paragraph, or a character), best bet is to kick it to the curb.

She hadn't read the story, but did take the time to read my description in the comments section below the piece. It included some back story that gives the piece more context than a 1,500 story based on a rather specific setting could provide without coming off as expository narration. However, it does beg the question: Should all short stories be stand alone? Do they fail if the author is unable to provide full context within the story itself? Further, how much back story is too much? If a reader is unfamiliar with a setting, should the writer try to explain it or press on with a fic with only the bare minimum of context, eschewing outside commentary to clarify?

I can understand where the gel in coming from in terms of tossing out unnecessary things, but is clarifying text outside the story superfluous to the point of bringing down the quality of said story?

I'm interested to hear everybody's thoughts on this. I'd like to write more stories with my Feilan characters, but do I need to go back and set the full context? There's a whole RP site devoted to the mythos, history, and magical rules of Feila, and I'm not even the original brainbox behind it; that's another chap. However, if providing some greater context would help, perhaps it would be worth it before I soldier into the unknown, throwing out countries and places that readers have never heard of.

D'accord... vos opinions?
 

Asswings

Banned
Banned
Yes, yes it is. A story should NEVER come with huge paragraphs explaining the setting, ever. It should come naturally during the story itself, and flow. You also shouldn't use a whole ton of made up words, as it breaks that flow. Yeah, SOMETIMES it can be pulled off... SOMETIMES. But rule of thumb is no no no no.
 

Fay V

Lost to this world
Here's a nice rule of thumb
I have stopped reading WOT because that shit had a glossary that rivaled the size of the book.

All fiction should be stand alone. You should be able to read a short story and understand what is happening, and enjoy it. Now that doesn't mean more information won't make it more enjoyable. Let us take for instance, Sherlock Holmes. If you wanted to you could read the stories out of order. It is more entertaining when you know the background of Watson and Holmes, but it's not necessary.
The short story should be good enough that someone says "wow I want to read more about that."
 

Zenia

Well-Known Member
You should be able to read a short story and understand what is happening, and enjoy it.
That reminds me of those people that use Japanese words and phrases throughout their otherwise ENGLISH story. If I have to use GOogle to understand, or skip to the bottom for a translation section, then it is WRONG.
 

Fay V

Lost to this world
That reminds me of those people that use Japanese words and phrases throughout their otherwise ENGLISH story. If I have to use GOogle to understand, or skip to the bottom for a translation section, then it is WRONG.
Yeah exactly. I mean there's always exceptions. Firefly had a lot of chinese tossed in there, they did it for a reason and I still enjoyed the story immensely. Still...there are too many people that take random foreign words because they sound awesome.
 
Yeah exactly. I mean there's always exceptions. Firefly had a lot of chinese tossed in there, they did it for a reason and I still enjoyed the story immensely. Still...there are too many people that take random foreign words because they sound awesome.

They swore in Chinese, which seemed to mostly be an epic means of making censorship almost as awesome as the original swearing.
 
They swore in Chinese, which seemed to mostly be an epic means of making censorship almost as awesome as the original swearing.

The other thing to note here is that the only times they used the Chinese was when swearing, and as such knowing exactly what they were saying was not plot critical. Same for their other slang, such as things that they like being called "Shiny." In fact I would say that Firefly is a very good model to follow.
 

Term_the_Schmuck

Most Interesting Man on FAF
Better to throw expository information in the story than leave it later for people to make sense of what they just read, IMO. If that information is really long, try to condense it to what is absolutely important at the time of the story. Sometimes you got to take some of your great ideas and toss them away for the purposes of telling a story that remain interesting. Exposition also doesn't have to be boring, depending on how you implement it.

I've written several nonfiction short stories and the general rule of thumb with that (which also carries over to fiction) is to never assume the reader knows who or what you're talking about. You think you may know your characters and have nothing interesting to say about them besides their names, but providing some limited backstory and description helps your audience paint a better picture of who we're interacting with and where. This can be accomplished without writing an autobiography for every person, just mention of few things that your audience, should they meet these people in real life, would be able to pick up on or provide the audience with some knowledge of who these people are and why they're important enough to even be brought up. For instance, I have no idea what you're talking about with Feilan characters or whatever, nor do I have any interest in looking up information on RP sites to figure that out. As a news reporter once told me, "make me care about what you have to say." The only way to do that is to put relevant information in that story in an interesting, creative way that keeps me invested in what happens.

Same goes with setting, though like I said, it can be accomplished briefly. If you can describe at least three/four of the five senses as it relates to a setting, you probably did a good job. You should always tell us what a character should see, hear, smell, and feel at least briefly when they enter an entirely different scene than they were before. If your characters are in a crowded parking lot, giving a brief description of car exhaust, wind chill, 90's era SUVs and honking horns pretty much covers all the scenery information you need. So no matter where they move within that parking lot, the audience gets the gist and can paint a picture in their minds of what's going on.
 
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Term_the_Schmuck

Most Interesting Man on FAF
What is a nonfiction short story? I thought "short story" implied fiction.

Some brief anecdote that could stand alone. A story about my eventful day at a ball park can be a piece of nonfiction, depending on how creative I want to get with how I relay that information.

News reporters often call their reports "stories". Does that imply they aren't true, and therefore works of fiction?
 

Poetigress

Panthera tigris libris
News reporters may call their reports "stories" as shorthand/slang, but I think the technically correct term would be article, feature, etc., depending on the piece's content and length. For most people, if you use the term "short story," they're going to assume you mean "short work of fiction," as that's the accepted definition.
 

Term_the_Schmuck

Most Interesting Man on FAF
News reporters may call their reports "stories" as shorthand/slang, but I think the technically correct term would be article, feature, etc., depending on the piece's content and length. For most people, if you use the term "short story," they're going to assume you mean "short work of fiction," as that's the accepted definition.

I don't know what you mean by "most people." I've never heard "short story" to be a term used exclusively for fiction, unless you're going to use Wikipedia as your source to mean "most people".

The stories I've written fall within the confines of short story length and happen to be nonfiction. Does it not stand to reason then that my explanation of a nonfiction short story would apply to said work?

We're talking about a lit community that can't even agree what "Creative Nonfiction" means. I'm not too sure why the semantics of "nonfiction short story" really matters, or that people reading my above post did a double take when they read it.
 

Scarborough

Cliched & Trite
I've written several nonfiction short stories and the general rule of thumb with that (which also carries over to fiction) is to never assume the reader knows who or what you're talking about.

I've written some nonfiction pieces as well, and I feel like the big problem is, once you've decided to include some backstory, how much is necessary? and how do you present it? There's a difference between writing a paragraph about how you met this person and writing a sentence about this person's discolored zit on their face. And there are definitely stories where the first one works and stories where the second one works and stories where neither works.

I feel like you have to not only put "relevant information" in each story, but you also have to present the information in an interesting way. David Sedaris's "Repeat After Me" (collected in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim) is very clearly crafted, in that he could theoretically say a lot about his sister, but only chooses a few details, and very deliberately decides when to reveal them. Plus he has a great voice.

I think some other writers have said that the purpose of a story is to express something in as few words as possible. If the backstory's necessary for the point of the story (the climax, or the atmosphere, or whatever it is your story is going for), then you must include it. But if the backstory's just filler, then it's just filler.
 

Fay V

Lost to this world
News reporters may call their reports "stories" as shorthand/slang, but I think the technically correct term would be article, feature, etc., depending on the piece's content and length. For most people, if you use the term "short story," they're going to assume you mean "short work of fiction," as that's the accepted definition.
I have never heard of this...they are two separate classifications. plots may be fiction or non-fiction. Short story is a term that shows the length, though I can't remember if there was a technical cut off point or not. then you have things like novels, novellas, ect. That's like saying you can't have a non-fiction play, or novel, it happens. Most people are just more familiar with fiction stories.
 

Term_the_Schmuck

Most Interesting Man on FAF
I think some other writers have said that the purpose of a story is to express something in as few words as possible. If the backstory's necessary for the point of the story (the climax, or the atmosphere, or whatever it is your story is going for), then you must include it. But if the backstory's just filler, then it's just filler.

Exactly what I'm trying to say. In the process of making your story shorter you shouldn't sacrifice information that could be relevant to the plot. Though I've listed a "senses" rule, I have to admit that some stories do function with extremely limited scene descriptions like "Alex's house" or "Minneapolis" (of course it's easy to just say these places because you can assume, as a writer, that people have a general idea of what these places look like, especially the latter).

Here's a story by a published author I'm very friendly with who gives very basic descriptions of where he is and what he sees. OP, or anyone else, tell me if you can get a good enough sense of the scenery and the characters from his descriptions. I'd be cheating since this is a nonfiction piece and I know the author, so I already have a sense of the kind of person he is, where he goes, and who he talks to. But I've heard people tell me he doesn't give enough information about himself.

What say you, lit nerds?
 
T

TakeWalker

Guest
I'd agree that 'short story' tends to be associated with fiction, if not necessarily defined solely as it. But then there's memoir/creative nonfiction, and that's a whole new kettle of fish. :V
 

M. LeRenard

Is not French
People are straying off-topic, here. Maybe start another thread if you want to discuss what constitutes a short story.

Term_the_Schmuck said:
In the process of making your story shorter you shouldn't sacrifice information that could be relevant to the plot.
True... but it also goes along with what you said before about finding an effective and creative way to include that information. You said the general rule of thumb is to never assume your reader knows who you're talking about. Well, honestly, I find that stories tend to work better using the opposite rule. It may be different for creative writing; it's all about imagination, so getting the details right isn't that important. You expect the reader to fill in most of the gaps himself, and, fact is, if you don't expect this and start explaining things in great detail, your reader is going to think you're patronizing him and will hate you for it. So in my writing, I just throw crap out there like the reader already knows everything and hope they can pick it all up, because that's what's gotten me the most positive responses in the past. I guess maybe when they start to get it, it makes them feel really clever? I don't really know.
Of course, it also has to do with style. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for someone else. But when talking about creative arts, that goes without saying.
 

Term_the_Schmuck

Most Interesting Man on FAF
True... but it also goes along with what you said before about finding an effective and creative way to include that information. You said the general rule of thumb is to never assume your reader knows who you're talking about. Well, honestly, I find that stories tend to work better using the opposite rule. It may be different for creative writing; it's all about imagination, so getting the details right isn't that important. You expect the reader to fill in most of the gaps himself, and, fact is, if you don't expect this and start explaining things in great detail, your reader is going to think you're patronizing him and will hate you for it. So in my writing, I just throw crap out there like the reader already knows everything and hope they can pick it all up, because that's what's gotten me the most positive responses in the past. I guess maybe when they start to get it, it makes them feel really clever? I don't really know.
Of course, it also has to do with style. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for someone else. But when talking about creative arts, that goes without saying.

It does have a lot to do with style. The story I posted in this thread takes a lot for granted for instance; that you know who Birdman is, what some dude's apartment looks like, what an immigration center in Minneapolis looks like, etc. I wouldn't call his story bad in this instance for not giving more detailed information, in my opinion. At the same time he's not talking about something that's well outside my imagination and is more specific. Case in point, OP's supposed race of creatures whose back story is in a bunch of RP threads. That's information I'd feel would need to be condensed and thrown into a story because I don't feel it's my job to go and research who these people are and find those threads because of the possible laziness of the author.

But there's not one way that pleases everyone, which you brought up. Some people like to feel clever for figuring things out, others might feel the author's lazy for not spelling something out. I tend to fall within the latter, because if I don't have some description to match a face to a name, all I have is a blank mannequin that talks, which is kinda creepy when you think about it.
 
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Jashwa

Member
The best advice I can give you is to go out and read short stories by other successful authors. It's the best way you can get a feel for what should/should not be included in a short story and how to make it work. Stephen King actually has a section of his book of short stories "Just After Sunset" that detailed how he got back into writing short stories and relearned how to make them work. It might be beneficial to check it or something like it out.

Also, as for your questions about setting and how much should be included: it really all depends on the style. While it's definitely not a good idea to spend a lot of time on the setting/background, how much/little you reveal is up to what fits in with your story. For most short stories, there tends to be a lot left up to the reader's imagination. So while you should reveal general information, you don't necessarily have to go into specifics. It's perfectly okay to leave things up to the reader: as long as you do it correctly and give them enough to go off of. For example, you could describe a beach that a character is strolling across and mention the waves and the trees that line it, but it might not be in your best interest to elaborate further into what type of trees/the size of the waves/the feel of the sand unless it's directly relevant to your plot/characters.

Also, like everyone else said, you should try not to introduce too many foreign elements such as words/worlds/mechanics into a short story. They SHOULD be things that anyone can just pick up and read without having to research them in order to understand them.
 
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M. LeRenard

Is not French
I tend to fall within the latter, because if I don't have some description to match a face to a name, all I have is a blank mannequin that talks, which is kinda creepy when you think about it.
Well, if all you're getting is a mannequin, the author's probably being WAY too sparse. All it takes is one or two sentences (usually best between bits of dialogue) and you can give the reader the general impression of what the person looks like.

"Hello there," she said, brushing back a strand of red hair.

Boom. Now you know this is a woman with red hair. So if the author isn't even doing that much... I might go so far as to call it laziness.
 

Term_the_Schmuck

Most Interesting Man on FAF
Boom. Now you know this is a woman with red hair. So if the author isn't even doing that much... I might go so far as to call it laziness.

I've seen it happen very often in many short stories. As I said, I think a main reason for this is that we as authors already have a picture in our heads of who these characters are, whether real or not, and find details like that too minor to mention. Sure they may say "hair" as opposed to "red hair" but that's not exactly much to go on. Now I have a mannequin with a transparent wig.

And yeah, simple things is all I'd require, like my parking lot example. Just tell me if there's cars there, maybe the weather or what time of day it is. If I read through two or three pages of a scene taking place in a parking lot, I'd like to know what's going on in that parking lot because it's an important enough location to be spending that kind of time there. It helps me settle into a scene and helps with pacing so I don't feel like I'm being rushed through the story via dialogue or narration that sounds more like an essay than a story.
 

Mech

Sexy Writer
Well, like everyone else said. A short story should contain some explaination of characters and settings. One thing that comes to mind is the Werehunter book by Mercedes Lackey. It's a collection of her short stories, four of which go together. Each one has a section describing the characters, their roles, etc. And each one gets a little longer than the last. It's something the reader can skim over if they know the series, but still introduces everything to new people.
 

Altamont

The Bard of the Beasts
Just a brief addition to the conversation, a paraphrasing of poe/idea that has been drilled into my head since High School is the idea that a great short story contains not one unnecessary word within its boundaries; something I have come to agree with. Essentially, if you can justify the inclusion of every word you've written against the possibilities of the many possible substitutions one could include with revision, you're on your way to a great short story.
 

Roaming Shadow

New Member
The way I see it, all the information that the reader needs to know to understand the story needs to be in the story itself somewhere. Even if the setting is elaborate, the story is short, and not all that setting information is required to understand the story. Take a hard look at the story you want to tell and ask yourself, "what does the reader need to know to understand the story?" Not an easy question to honestly answer for a writer, but a necessary one. If it's not directly relevent to the plot, the reader doesn't need to know. Many of the important details can normally be integrated into the narrative without much exposition. There is also usually room for a little "fluff" description; lines that are not directly relevent to the plot but that breathe life and realism to the piece, while also providing a little information as to the setting these characters occupy. If you essentially need to present a cipher for your readers to understand the story, you might as well have put a huge block of exposition right at the front. Taking the exposition out of the narrative and in the description may mean that it's not in your short story anymore, but your readers still need to read it.

Most readers of fiction give some level of "grace period" at the beginning of a story for the author to inform them, preferably subtly, about the general setting of the story. A character's description, actions, environment, and what's around them go a great length towards setting such an impression. The description of the setting for a longer piece then build off that, but you don't have that much space in a short story, and that impression is all they get. That's why it's so important to make sure only the vitaly important pieces of information are included, and are wound withing the narrative, introduced and mildly explained as they become relevent. I'm still learning the craft of short stories myself, being much different beasts than novels, but those are the feelings I've got and some words of adviceI've heard.
 

Roose Hurro

Lovable Curmudgeon
Banned
Should all short stories be stand alone?

Yes... it's called "short" for a reason. Every single short story I've ever read has always been "stand alone".
 
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