5 Techniques to Improve your Literary Short Fiction

Let’s talk craft today. The nitty gritty details of craft. The stuff that leaves our hands dirty from the effort. I know we have an awful lot of writers who read this blog. Revise: I know we have an abundance of writers who read this blog. [Reason for Revision: our writers are not an "awful lot."] The topic is on my mind because I’ve been editing the batch of literary short fiction that will appear in the next issue of Irreantum. You can look forward to stories by Darin Cozzens, Mark Brown, and Laura McCune-Poplin, all capable writers. I’m sure you’ll enjoy their very well-crafted stories.

Part of my job as fiction editor is to perform close readings on the stories Irreantum publishes. That means I take a very deep look at the structure, not only of the plot, but of every paragraph, sentence and phrase, weighing the impact of each element on the overall story, which, yes, must also be structurally sound. My job has been the best teacher ever. I thought I’d use my space here to share with you some of the craft techniques for writing literary short fiction that I’ve learned during my stint with Irreantum. I’ll stay away from the biggest, broadest pieces of craft advice–stuff like: Protagonist must have a clear story goal and something vital to lose. Rather, my focus will be on the “molecular” craft techniques that help keep the reader engaged.

My hope, of course, is that some of you will chime in with your own personal gems so that we can all benefit together. That said, here are 5 general techniques I’ve learned to implement:

1. Lose the flowery language: Say what you mean. Heaven knows, I’ve been guilty of this. In the past, people who edited me called it my “tendency to overwrite.” Ow. But so true. Many of us who love the English language and literary fiction in particular enjoy waxing eloquent with our prose. Remember, it is of no value if your sentence sounds lovely, but says nothing. So simplify your language.  As a general rule, it seems that the sentences and passages that you, the writer, find the most satisfaction in reading aloud are likely the very parts that need to be cut. I’ve learned to specifically ask members of my writing group if they can understand what I mean in passages where I think I may have overwritten. If they can’t give me a quick answer, if they have to reread and seem to be puzzling it out to any degree, I rewrite. Stay simple.

2. Avoid writing the reaction before the  causal action. This is a very common problem that most writers don’t notice. Here’s a very basic example: “Sharon jumped in fright when the door suddenly swung open.” Even though the verb is active, the entire image has a rather passive feel. Why? Because we know the result before we see the stimuli. This sort of thing really slows down a story, and, folks, lets be honest. In the world of literary fiction, where stories tend to be slower paced, any trick to keep the text enlivened should be implemented. Make a conscious effort to review your manuscripts for times when you place the reaction ahead of the stimulus. Show the door mysteriously opening and then give the reaction. Doing this will help the reader experience the story along with the protagonist and this will, in turn, keep the reader engaged.  Make sure you watch for this problem within paragraphs and passages as well.

3. Keep your characters anchored to their setting and choose details from that setting that advance characterization, mood, theme, or plot.  Nothing takes me out of a story faster than forgetting where the characters are, or losing my ability to understand how they fit into a particular setting. Often writers begin a scene by indicating a setting, but then, as the scene progresses, completely forget that the setting is there. I know in their mind’s eye, they envision the characters interacting within that setting, but if a writer doesn’t keep reminding me where the characters are, I forget. Or I lose the ability to keep the picture in my mind. So as you write your scenes and develop dialogue, keep the characters involved with their setting. If you have two women sitting at a kitchen table, discussing one’s irresponsible husband, interject setting by mentioning the wobble in the table, the buzz of the microwave timer, the hum of the refrigerator. But select these details with intent. Each detail has connotation, has baggage, so, you want to choose details wisely. A wobbly table can suggest instability in a marriage. The buzz of the timer, that patience is running out. The hum of the refrigerator kicking on . . . Well, you get the point. True, this can also become a form of overwriting, but practice will eventually make you adept.

4. Unless your POV character cannot know of a detail, give all important details of an image upon first address. The funny thing about readers is that as soon as you introduce an object or a new setting to them, they begin constructing the image in their mind. When you stop describing the object, or stop having characters interact with the object, and move on to something else, the reader completes the imaginative process of constructing that item. Too often, writers mention, or have characters interact with an object, and then move on to something else, only to return to that initial object and throw in some new important detail. For instance, I once read a story in which two characters approached a door. The writer left the door, moved on to something else, and I completed my mental image of a darkly painted metal door. The next thing I knew, the characters were attempting to insert a key into a silver lock. Because I hadn’t known to imagine a silver lock, the illusion of the story shattered for me; I was removed from the action of the story as I reconstructed the image of that door in my mind. You don’t want your reader to ever have to step out of the illusion to reconfigure an image. They aren’t likely to ever fully engage in the story again. It is as if trust is broken. So if something is going to be an important detail, be sure to include it for your reader from the outset. There is a clever exception to this, however. If your POV character cannot see a detail at the outset, do NOT reveal it to the reader. Let the reader discover it with the POV character.

5. Check to be sure you aren’t using language that runs counter to the mood and tone you wish to create. In short fiction, every word matters. If you are writing a story that you want to have a dark feeling, don’t choose words or images that are bright and cheery. Say you hope people who read your story will comment, “Wow. That was haunting.” Now imagine you have to write a scene in which three wild deer approach a cabin door. In your attempt to use active verbs, don’t write, “The three deer leaped over the fence, ears thrust forward, happy to see a new face on the cabin’s porch.” Not haunting. Leaped is a bright, youthful, playful word. The thrusting forward of the ears might or might not work as a haunting image, but “happy” and “new” are likewise too bright to build that haunting feel you desire. Try to think of more chilling ways to craft the same image. Maybe: “With their dark eyes on me, the three wild deer crossed onto the cabin’s grounds, their steps steady, expectant, and yet oddly tentative, leaving me thinking it wasn’t a retreat they considered, but a charge.” During the rewrite stage, keep a sharp eye out for images that run counter to your overall tone.

And there you have it, my top five hints for improving your literary short fiction. Certainly these aren’t hard and fast rules, but they are things I’ve observed to be generally problematic as I’ve performed close readings while editing. Because of that, as I review my own work, I keep my eye out for times I slip and make these mistakes. And make them I do. But knowing about them so I can hunt them out of my own work has made me a faster, more efficient writer, a thing I’m grateful for. That is my hope in passing them on to you, that they might help you improve your storytelling. Also, as I said earlier, I’d love to hear things you’ve learned along the way. Believe me, I can use all the help I can get.



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7 Responses to 5 Techniques to Improve your Literary Short Fiction

  1. These are great tips, Lisa. And I submit that they don’t just apply to literary fiction, but would be of help to writers of all kinds of fiction, maybe even some kinds of nonfiction.

    Thank you for sharing them.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Good advice — and as Kathleen indicated, much of it applies outside literary fiction as well. Individual tastes and literary styles differ, and so there will be exceptions and different ways that these rules apply to different circumstances. A comparison that is telling to me might be distracting or meaningless to another reader. But it’s important to be *aware* on these levels, I think.

    A couple of that I have to guard against in my own fiction and/or see in fiction I review:

    - Don’t casually slip into the mind or point of view of a different character midscene (e.g., by describing that person’s emotional reaction to something that your POV character said). Maybe this isn’t an issue in the fiction you deal with, Lisa, but I see it pretty often in fiction I’m reviewing.

    - Don’t attempt to build suspense by concealing information from the readers that your POV character would know. There are exceptions, but this is something that can easily be overused — and strikes me as something of a cheap trick besides.

  3. S.R. Dantzler says:

    Thanks for taking time to share these valuable insights. I especially liked the advice you give on the second topic. I see that so often and have not heard sound advice to the contrary.

  4. Courtney says:


    I love your practical advice. But this post should be called why Lisa is a genius editor.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Thanks to those of you who read and, even better, responded. I’m sorry for being late getting to this. I was called out of town on a family emergency over the holidays and so had other things on my mind.

    To Kathleen: I’m betting that these little tips will translate to other genres, but since I focus on lit fit, I’m going to limit my advice. These are just a few “little” things that crop up and often go under the radar screen when it comes to writing classes and workshops. As always, thanks for your support.

    To Jonathan: Yes, the POV breaches are common in what I see and I’m probably more anal retentive about them than a lot of editors. Some of what I crack down on writers for other editors might let go. But big shifts are problematic and I’m sure send a lot of stories to the slush piles. I consider POV shifts a big problem, not a little one.

    In fact, in short fiction, I’d warn against using a second POV character as well. I think in my time at _Irreantum_, we’ve published one story that used a second POV and I fought its usage all the way to the publication deadline. There simply isn’t enough time to develop a second POV and that second POV usually robs emotional impact (in short fiction), rather than build it. Maybe someday I’ll write about why I think that is.

    To S.R.: REgarding putting reaction before action. I learned this on the back of Mark Brown (I hope he won’t mind my using his name), back when I worked on my first issue of Irreantum with Angela Hallstrom as editor. Mark had entered the Irreantum contest and his story, “Cause,” caught Angela’s attention. She wanted to publish it even though it hadn’t landed in the winner’s circle. When I read the story, I felt the tension was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I made poor Mark write and rewrite scenes, over and over, as we tried to find a way to bring in the tension the story itself begged for. Maybe after his 10 billionth rewrite, I saw it, finally, in paragraph I’d read and reread and reread: He had written the protagonist’s reaction before showing me the cause. It was a real brow slapping moment for me. I went back through his story (which was the first piece of short fiction he had ever written btw) and realized he did this over and over throughout. Once I brought this to his attention, he rewrote again (poor guy) and voila. The tension appeared. “Cause” is a great story. And, fwiw, Mark and I both became better writers through the struggle of getting that story together. He is an amazing and hardworking and very patient writer. (You’ll love his “The Iron Door” in the next Irreantum.”)

    To Courtney: Ah, shaddup. Remember me to NY. (You go girl!)

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I hadn’t considered the question of POV as it specifically applies to short stories, since most of what I read and review are novel manuscripts. I’m trying to think of examples of short stories with more than one POV that pull it off successfully… While I’m sure they exist, I can’t think of any.

      What I see a lot in less experienced authors is inadvertent POV switches — where the author doesn’t switch POV wholesale, but nonetheless includes a detail that requires stepping momentarily outside the POV character: e.g., communicating someone else’s internal emotions, or giving information that the POV character doesn’t know in writing that is otherwise closely linked to that character.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        Precisely, Jonathan. You describe the classic POV breach very well.

        I think some writers attempt to use the second POV in short fiction because they study craft books that are specific to novel writing. They figure since the short story is exactly that, a shorter story than a novel, the same craft applies. It doesn’t.

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