During the 16 years that I edited Clockwatch Review, I often found myself wishing that every writer could work as an editor for a year. After all, it’s impossible to read 60-plus manuscripts daily and not develop a pretty fair sense of what makes a short story work.
While editors learn a lot about fiction, writers, unfortunately, are left only with cryptic rejection slips that say things like “sorry,” “try us again” or “this came close.” But the high volume of submissions makes it impossible for most editors to explain what revisions a writer might undertake. That’s probably one of the most frustrating aspects of editing, because I often think to myself that a tweak here or there would make a huge difference in a rejected story. Here are 21 tweaks to consider when trying to revive a rejected story:
1. Could it use a new beginning? Lead with a powerful scene, a witty exchange or a dazzling description that’s now buried. Or, try x-ing out paragraph one, then two and so on, until you get to something that includes more action, interest or contrast than your original beginning. You’ll find that what you had may have been only throat-clearing, rather than saying something necessary to the overall story.
2. Does the ending allude to a deeper story? The best endings resonate because they echo a word, phrase or image from earlier in the story, and the reader is prompted to think back to that reference and speculate on a deeper meaning.
3. Is there a dominant visual image? With the movie Deliverance, it’s the “Squeal like a pig” mountain rape scene; with Pulp Fiction, it’s the needle thrust into the heart of a woman who had overdosed. Strong central images such as these anchor the story in our memories.
4 Is the right person telling the story? I vividly remember a Kurt Vonnegut story of a broken relationship, told not by one of the participants, but by a plumber wedged underneath a kitchen sink whom the couple seems to have forgotten. Speculation on the part of a narrator is sometimes more interesting than exposition.
5 Have you included enough interior monologue, or too much? It’s amazing how many writers tell a story from a certain point of view, but don’t spend much time inside that particular character’s head. Without internal thoughts—which can help to serve as a counterplot to the physical action—a story will be less complex. But pick your moments carefully. Characters should reflect during pauses in the action—not during physical action scenes.
6 Are there too many minor characters, or too few? There are no hard and fast rules, but short stories can’t hold too many characters (or proper names). If characters aren’t absolutely necessary, get rid of them—or at least don’t give them names. Call them by their occupation, function or dress, like “the grocer,” “the girl who kept staring at him” or “the man in the blue shirt.”
7 Have you created appropriate frequency and intensity of scenes? A scene should reveal something about the character, advance the plot in a significant way, provide insight into the “theme” or, as Eudora Welty suggested, do all three. Too few scenes can make a story seem like little more than a sketch; too many scenes can dilute a story to where important scenes can lose their power; and dramatizing the wrong moments is like highlighting the wrong passages in a novel for the next reader to find.
8 Why are you telling me this? Ever stand at a party and wonder why someone was telling you a story? The movie Stand by Me is a tale of 12-year-olds framed by a beginning where a grown writer is seen contemplating a headline about a local attorney’s murder and an ending where we see that writer finding inspiration from his son and a playmate to end his story. The frame gives the story an immediate context and anticipates the “why” question.
9 Do you appeal to a reader’s senses? The world around us is made “real” by our senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. Stories that lack a convincing sense of reality often lack imagery that appeals to a reader’s senses. A writer once told me that he strives to include five sensory details on every page. In retrospect, that seems like overkill, but you can make a fictional world come alive for readers by making it first come alive for your characters.
10 Do you appeal to a sense of place? Many stories exist in a vacuum, where lines are spoken without any description of an interior or exterior setting. That’s like going to the theater and having the house lights never come on, or having characters stand there and deliver lines without any stage action.
11 Are your characters motivated? What drives them to do the things they do? Do we know what they want?
12 Is your time frame interesting? Too many stories revolve around a single incident covering one to three hours. Could your current story really be a scene within a larger story? What if the story was stretched, like an image stamped in Silly Putty, until it became distorted and possibly more interesting?
13 Could you add texture to your story with echoes, allusions and metaphors? The fiction studied in college—Literature, with a capital “L” —is rich with figurative language and echoes. Figurative language includes metaphors, similes (“he had teeth like an alligator”), symbols and allusions (“someone had arranged the leaves on his lawn in the shape of a cross”). Echoes work by repeating key phrases or words within the story so that they have a cumulative effect on the reader.
14 Have you considered the use of an unreliable narrator? Would your story be more interesting if we were led to believe that your narrator wasn’t telling the whole truth, or if our perceptions were something different from the narrator’s?
15 Do you provide both trivial information and “deep thoughts”? If your character is a bricklayer, then readers want to learn more about a bricklayer’s world—the technical aspects of the job, as well as the mind-set of a mason.
16 Could lyrics, letters or lists add interest? These details double as plot devices. Consider what the “Sheik of Araby” lyrics add to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or the letter that turns to pulp in Daisy’s hand or the list of socialites who frequent Gatsby’s parties.
17 What about coincidence and irony? These literary conventions add considerable interest. Say you have a story about a divorced parent who contracts AIDS, where the focus is on her first finding out and then wondering how to make provisions for her children. If you make her ex-husband the one in the relationship who is promiscuous or a drug abuser, it establishes an irony that sets up an emotional response in the reader.
18 Have you created enough contrast? Too many stories focus on a cast of characters who look, talk and act alike. If your characters are similar, try introducing quirks, interests, speech patterns, expressions, physical traits or emotional responses that will set them apart from others. When you walk down the street, what do you notice in a sea of people: two men of the same race and height, or members of the opposite sex who also are dressed radically different or have dramatic height contrasts?
19 Is your dialogue lively and engaging? Friends of Tennessee Williams said that they often thought the author had a whole house full of people, because there were all sorts of voices in varying tones and volumes coming from his writing room. That’s because Williams acted out his scenes while he wrote, trying to get each character right. You can try that trick, but if your dialogue still doesn’t ring true, perhaps it’s what your characters are saying rather than how they’re saying it. What’s more interesting? Overheard conversations at the beginning or end of a date, party or gathering of friends, or conversations from the middle?
20 Can you up the ante? The simplest fictional formula is situation, followed by complication and (ir)resolution. Many times we get stories where the complication feels like part of an emerging problem the character must face, rather than an additional factor that will make a resolution tougher. Other times the complication just isn’t complicated enough, or there simply isn’t enough at stake. Try intensifying an existing complication, or toss in one or two more for good measure!
21 When all else fails, why not try a “sidecar” approach? So many of the stories we saw felt like theme park rides where the car follows a predictable route and never leaves the track. A boy breaks his mother’s priceless vase, and the story follows the external action of his attempts to repair it and the internal action of him trying to decide whether (or how) to tell his mother about it. But what if that boy was in junior high and had just hooked up with his first serious girlfriend, and the story’s focus is instead on their relationship? The vase could become a subplot, which could complicate things if the girlfriend thinks he should do something different from what he’s inclined. Greater complexity means greater reader interest. So tweak away!
James Plath has taught creative writing on the college level for almost 20 years.