While you can’t predict exactly what an editor will or will not like, there are a couple things you can do to ensure that your story has a fighting chance when you submit it to a literary magazine (and won’t cause anyone to scream and/or tear their hair out in frustration).
This is PART 2 of a multi-post series. For PART 1, click here.
Build Urgency From The Beginning
Lack of urgency is the number one reason why I turn down stories. The prose might be beautiful, but I can’t be sold on that alone. Your story needs to open with a bang and keep me hooked from sentence one.
If your story starts out with two characters discussing the weather, then I probably won’t read on (unless they’re talking about sharknados). Another pet peeve of mine: when a story starts off with a description of scenery. While this can sometimes work, it often doesn’t and leaves me yawning after the first couple of sentences. As a rule, start with some action, or an interesting scenario.
Two very important things you should cover within the first 1-2 pages:
- Who is the main character, what do they want, and why should I care about them?
- What are the stakes? In other words, what does the main character have to lose if they don’t get what they want?
If I don’t care about your character, or if I can’t get a sense of what’s at stake from the beginning, then I will not keep reading.
Once you build urgency, you have to maintain it throughout your entire story. How can you do this? Here are a couple ideas:
- Keep raising the stakes. How much can your main character stand to lose?
- Prevent your character from getting what they want.
For a more complete list, check out this post on the Terrible Minds blog. Chuck Wendig really knows what he’s talking about with this one.
I recently read an excellent story from Family of Fallen Leaves called “Thirteen Harbors.” It begins like this:
“I took a new wife for my husband. Maybe the strangest thing ever to happen at Yen Ha village, I chose my good friend to be the bride, a woman who had passed the age for marriage but for a long time had desired a child and wanted a husband.” — Suong Nguyet Minh, “Thirteen Harbors”
Talk about a bang, right? And from there, the story doesn’t let up in its urgency as main character Sao suffers from devastating miscarriage after miscarriage.
If you have the opportunity, I highly suggest you read the rest of it. Not only is “Thirteen Harbors” a haunting story about the effects of Agent Orange, but it is also expertly crafted, which is really beneficial for us writers.
So, how do you build urgency in your own work? Have you read any particularly well done short stories lately?
— Manuela Williams