You Know I’ll Stop Reading Your Short Story When --
–the posting is one long block of text unrelieved by spaces between paragraphs, if indeed, the author knows how to shape his sentences into paragraphs to begin with.
–it’s been typed in ALL CAPS (or in a fancy, swirling font that is tough on the eyes.)
-it’s riddled with grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. This carelessness not only shows that the author has no respect for the reader, but also that he hasn’t enough respect for his own work to present it as error-free as possible. By the way, why are some writers in love with the exclamation point, which should be used rarely, and only then within dialogue? Why any sentence in the English language should be followed by a long string of ! is beyond my admittedly-limited understanding.
–the opening passage is weak. An effective way to begin a story is “in media res,” right in the middle of the action. The best stories grab the reader with the first sentence, perhaps even the first word.
–the topic is too large or too small. Fiction is not a big bolt of cloth to be thrown on the table: if it’s a spool of thread that gradually unrolls, revealing some information with each revolution, it’s a novel; if it’s a little swatch of material from the cloth in which the reader can see a few details that indicate about the character, then it’s a short story.
–if the subject of the story concerns a subject that has already been done over and over again in the history of literature, where usually it has been done better. So if the story is about a faithful pet, young love, jilted love, an old person who learns a valuable lesson from a young ‘un or vice versa, a framework for senseless violence, a heist, cops or private detectives solving crimes, ghosts, zombies, and vampires, I’ll probably stop reading – unless the hackneyed plot is handled in a totally fresh way, say, a vegetarian zombie or a vampire who is allergic to hemoglobin.
–the story is moldy with cliches. Years ago an editor from The New Yorker famously said that he reads every unsolicited manuscript that appears on his desk, but that he stops reading when he comes to a cliche. If one is writing a piece of fiction, why would he want to use a phrase that has already been written thousands of times before? The only time to use a cliche appear is in a satire or a parody of a Babbitt-type character, the kind of a guy who wouldn’t recognize a fresh expression if it came in the form of a whipped cream pie hitting him in the face. ( The pie-in-the face is a comedy cliche, by the way.) Cliches are for unimaginative types, not writers of short stories, the best of whom think up new ways to be expressive while moving their fiction along.
Back in the Jurassic Era, when I was in school, a professor told the class about a young lady who said that she didn’t like to read Shakespeare because “he used too many cliches.” Well, guess what? They weren’t cliches when Shakespeare wrote them. He was the very first to mint those time-honored phrases, which we quote in everyday, mundane conversations.
–the character(s) do not seem to live or have lived or conceivably could live in any known or imaginable world. By that I mean, the story fails to present the character in a way that he or she is remotely human, or has human-like qualities. At least the character should have a name other than a vague pronoun. A human being thinks and “feels,” but also moves around and talks. If a piece that calls itself fiction is mostly a abstract rumination by an unnamed narrator, I stop reading. I’ll keep reading if there is some engaging dialogue from characters who conceivably could draw breath.
–if the author has wasted time telling us about a character’s genealogy, life history, and his physical characteristics, especially if that information has little or no direct or indirect bearing on the topic at hand. I’ll also stop reading if there are sentences telling the reader how the character comes to know a certain fact: “Gerald knew it was eleven o’clock because the mailman always arrives next door at eleven, unless he decided to stop for coffee first.”
–the story forgets to allow the reader some room to draw her own conclusion. It’s possible to “tell” too much in a short story. On the other hand, if the reader is scratching her head as to what the heck is going on in the story, the author hasn’t “shown” enough. The best stories strike a balance between exposition and ambiguity, hinting at what is about while allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
– the author has mislaid his sense of humor or takes his role way too seriously, having erected neon signs around his purple prose or drawn bullet points around his symbols or goes out of his way to let the world know that
he owns a thesaurus.
–the story ends with a moral. “If you want to send a message,” a Hollywood producer once said, “call Western Union.” These days we have IMs and emails. Messages and morals are for non-fiction articles and essays. The theme of the short story would optimally come through in a subtle though effective way.
– the author can’t extricate from the labyrinth of his plot without a cop-out ending, such as “it was all a dream.”
When an author manages to avoid these pitfalls, then the story is no nightmare, maybe even a pleasure to read.