I READ AROUND 400 SHORT STORIES last fall as a submissions editor for The Idaho Review. An internship for Boise State’s literary journal meant I could challenge myself as a writer and editor to explore the line between literary fiction and genre fiction. What makes a good story? Well that depends…
Along the way, I was surprised by how little the MFA students on staff knew about building an author platform. It was also rather amusing that one person’s response to learning I primarily edit books for writers intending to self-publish was to say they would be surprised if such authors would even write actual sentences. Wow. Just wow.
Submissions were handled via Submittable. The associate editor assigned stories to each staff member. Mid-week, each member sent their batch to a partner. If a story received two yes votes (accompanied by a), the associate editor read the story to decide whether or not to bring it to table. The entire staff then discussed why or why not they felt the story deserved to be published. In four months, we sent ONE story to the fiction editor.
Some stories had been selected the previous spring, and a good number were solicited from established authors. Even though an author makes a pittance for publication in these journals, the stories are eligible for inclusion in esteemed anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories.
Getting published is tough. Traditional publishing may no longer be the only choice, but I readily admit I value its validity. Not all of us are meant to go the indie route. The majority of stories submitted to this type of publication are good. The line separating a merely good story from a story from a great one is indeed subjective. Yet, all of us can recall stories that lingered with us months and even years afterward. One such story for me is Joyce Carol Oates’ Where are you going? Where have you been? It’s a formula that can’t really be put into words.
In any case, here’s an approximation of the things I asked myself regarding what makes a good story. Out of the 400 or so stories I read, only about six left a lasting impression.
#1: Does the story start in scene? Thought is not action. Dreams and flashbacks are not action either. Show the reader the story world, don’t tell them about it.
#2: Is a conflict present? Some sort of conflict needs to drive the story forward, but it doesn’t need to be huge. In essence, drama = desire + determination.
#3: Is it a short story? This may seem like a no-brainer, but too many stories don’t adhere to three-act story structure. Readers instinctively anticipate a beginning, middle, and end. A vignette is not a story, and flash fiction has to be really special to stand out from the slush pile.
#4: Does every word count? Short stories must be economical. Three to five thousand words seems to be the sweet spot. Anything over that typically starts to drag. The use of language shows artistic mastery.
#5 What layers are present? Literary fiction, unlike genre fiction, relies on more than just surface story. Dammit, writing is an art! A good story is half the battle, but attention to elements of craft such as the overall structure and thematic messages can only make a good story even better.
#6: Does experimentation work? Most experimental out-of-the-box stories tend to read like something written as a writing exercise rather than really being mind-blowing. Meta stories too often come across as being overly clever and nothing more.
#7: Are the characters and point of view fitting? Are the characters too few or too many? Can they be condensed? What purpose does their development serve? Multiple POVs in a short story are usually not worth trying to pull off.
#8: At what price death? Death in and of itself tends not to be enough to become the dramatic basis for a literary story. Compelling situations, on the other hand, are dramatic. Killing off a character is the easiest of all plot devices.
#9: Can quirky be good? Yes, yes, and yes! When a story can take the ordinary and take it in a slightly bizarre or offbeat path and still manage to connect with the reader on a human level, magic is gonna happen. Trust me.
10: Is the “It” factor present? This is that touchy-feely area. It’s hard to define what makes a story strike a universal emotional chord. The more stories a person reads, the more clear it becomes how rare indeed to come across a truly special one.
When I write stories, I want to write ones that crawl inside my brain and take up residence in my very bones.
What makes a good story? Do tell. This is not a test. There are no right or wrong answers.
Issues of The Idaho Review can be purchased via the Boise State University bookstore.
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