There are many reasons short stories get rejected. Many, MANY reasons. So many, in fact, that it would be impossible to safeguard your story against all of them. If the slush reader’s having a bad day, if the editor just doesn’t dig your writing style, or if the magazine JUST accepted a story about a cross-dressing werewolf (which is exactly what YOUR story happens to be about), there’s not much you can do about those things.
There are, however, a few things you CAN do to vastly improve your story’s chances, and one of these is to make sure that you have a complete story. Conflict, change and growth are the lifeblood of all stories, both long and short, and a lack of these elements is one major reason that many short stories get rejected.
Now, the advice “write a complete story” might sound like an obvious no-brainer, and if we were talking about novels, it would be. If your novel’s main character doesn’t have a problem, then you, as the author, have a big one.
But short stories, especially flash fiction (1,000 words or less), can be a little trickier. With so few words, it can be easy to fall into the trap of writing a beautiful scene without any actual substance, or a trick-the-audience, twist-ending story in which nothing actually happens (I’ve been guilty of both of these charges myself, and I’ve got the rejection letters to prove it!).
Consider these two examples:
I could write a moody, atmospheric piece about Katie, the sailor’s daughter, staring out at the ocean on a misty morning, thinking about her father, who’s been lost as sea for eight months. If done well, this has the potential to be a really gorgeous, heartbreaking scene. However, unless Katie actually DOES something—maybe she decides to go hit the high seas and look for Dad, or realizes she has to let him go and get on with her life—then it’s not a complete story.
I could also write a tale about Nora, the meek, mousy, small-town librarian, who, as it turns out, spends her nights as a wildly-popular exotic dancer. Now, this is certainly a fun idea, but simply setting up the character as a soft-spoken, overlooked librarian and then revealing at the end that she’s a smokin’-hot stripper isn’t enough for a full story. Nothing changed for Nora—she knew she was a stripper all along. The only thing that’s changed is the audience’s perception of her—and that’s just if they didn’t see the ending coming (which many readers—and editors—will).
So, what does it take to make a complete story, and how can you make sure your piece fits the bill? Here are three simple tests to put your stories through before you send them out into the big, bad, rejection-filled world:
1.) Ask yourself: What is the CONFLICT in my story? Is it:
-Man vs. Man
-Man vs. Nature
-Man vs. Himself
-Man vs. Society
-Man vs. God
If you can identify a clear conflict, chances are you’ve got a full story.
2.) Ask yourself: What CHANGES in my story? How are things different at the ending than they were at the beginning? If you can see a clear difference in your story’s character or situation as the result of the events that took place, you’re probably in good shape.
And the final test:
3.) Boil your story down to a single-sentence summary, e.g.: “Katie thinks about her father, who is lost at sea” or “Nora the dumpy librarian is actually a highly-paid stripper.” When you’ve got your story in this bare-bones state, look for key words that indicate change or conflict, such as:
Notice that neither of the two examples above have words like that. However, if I make a few tweaks to the storylines: “Katie, the sailor’s daughter, DECIDES to go look for her father, who is lost at sea” or “Nora, the dumpy and over-looked librarian, DISCOVERS true joy when she takes on a secret life as a stripper”—now I’ve got something that maybe, just maybe (if all the stars are aligned and neither the slush reader nor the editor are going through a messy break-up) has a chance of getting published.
Best of luck on your submissions, and keep writing!