Updated: Jul 10
(This essay was published in slightly different form in The Writing Cooperative.)
A year or so ago, I started working on Submitit's algorithm. Since then, I have probably read more short stories than most people read in a lifetime. I’ve read great short stories in prestigious journals. I’ve read mediocre—and occasionally pretty awful—short stories in middling journals. And everything in between. Over time, I’ve noticed eight characteristics of the short stories that show in the top journals and, especially, in the various annual anthologies that celebrate the best stories. If you’re trying to get your story published in a top journal (which is really, really hard), read on . . .
First sentences and first paragraphs.
Great short stories usually have great first sentences:
The girls in Troop 17 found the dead baby while hunting mushrooms for their Outdoor Edibles badge.
—Audra Kerr Brown, “The Way of the Woods” (from F(r)iction)
Macabre, yes. But really a perfect first sentence. All but the most pusillanimous of readers will want to keep reading. (Later, I’ll talk about how the best writers use specific details. This one has that nailed, too.)
Here’s another (I’m just flipping through a bunch of journals on my desk):
She struck her attacker in the head with a shovel, a small one that she normally kept in the trunk of her car for moving things off the highway.
—Jo Ann Beard, “The Tomb of Wrestling” (from Tin House (r.i.p))
(Sorry, another dark one. I must be in a mood.) Again, we want to keep reading. Beyond the obvious question (like what the heck is going on?), why does she have a shovel in her car “for moving things off the highway”? Again, we must keep reading. (By the way, read this story if you can find it. It was anthologized in the O. Henry Prize Stories (2018). It’s unbelievably good.)
Beyond the first sentence, I think it’s important to zoom out a bit and make sure the first paragraph is also riveting (or the first few paragraphs, if they’re short). I’ve read some great first sentences, only to be disappointed by the end of the paragraph. Also, a great first paragraph takes some pressure off your first sentence. I have enough faith in journal editors to get through the first paragraph or two. But if the first couple of paragraphs aren’t great, if they don’t grab like a fish hook, the story’s probably in trouble.
I should say, quickly, before moving on, that I’m not a big fan of “rules” in fiction. Break the rules, my fellow writers! That’s the beauty of fiction. (The word novel means new!) But if you’re trying to get your story published in a literary journal, you better find a way to make your reader sit up and take notice, stat.
Show, don’t tell (yawn).
Yes, this is an old—we might say timeworn—axiom (I’m avoiding the word rule). But it’s probably the most common note I put in my clients’ stories. Over and over I write: Show, don’t tell. And then, eventually, I write: Sorry I keep writing this.
Telling is easy. A writer can tell you he misses his lover. Or he can show you:
I thought of him in the way you do when you’re young: in the mornings, lying in bed listening to the songbirds, sheets tangled around my legs; when I stood in the kitchen watching the kettle, waiting for a boil; when I was pruning, grafting, staking, and guying the fruit trees; when, after work, I walked to the streambed and listened to the spring peepers; sitting on our porch, listening to a thunderstorm clear its throat on the horizon in three notes, the smell of dirt released under the storm’s coming. As in, always. I sometimes woke with an impression of his face in my eyes, with my hand reaching across the bed for him. My body remembering his body even if I tried not to. Gray-blue eyes with a ring of what looked like brown around the iris. A freckle on his eyelid. The scar on his lip. An Adam’s apple stark as a broken bone. His hair smelled like tobacco, his neck like fermenting fruit. . . .
—Ben Shattuck, “The History of Sound” (from The Common)
(I had to look up “guying.” To guy: to support something, as with a rope or cable, to steady it. Who knew?) The writer, in these lines, doesn’t tell us of his love. He shows it. I mean, he really fucking shows it. (I recommend you read this story immediately. Don’t even finish this essay. Shattuck’s story is one of the best I’ve read.)
This is our task, our challenge, as writers. Telling a reader about how a character feels is like describing the steps of a dance. Showing is dancing. Showing sticks. In the example above, I feel the narrator’s love, his sense of loss, more deeply than telling ever could.
As with all guidelines (I almost wrote rules), this one can be taken too far. I doubt I could find a story—even a great story—that doesn’t occasionally tell us how a character (or narrator) feels. But the best writers usually do so sparingly. And I would argue that when these writers have a chance to show rather than tell, the chance is eagerly taken, probably instinctively.
Check your own writing. Skim for what I call tonal adjectives (worried, angry, happy, excited, etc.), and see if you can rewrite some of these sections to show the emotion rather than tell it. It will almost certainly improve your writing.
Describe, describe, describe.
Have you ever read Georges Perec’s “Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work-table”? Or really any of his work? Perec is a master of detail:
. . . A desk-lamp, a cigarette box, a bud-vase, a matchbox-holder, a cardboard box containing little multi-colored index-cards, a large carton bouilli inkwell incrusted with tortoiseshell, a glass pencil-box, several stones . . .
—George Perec (from Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, 146)
(I had to look up “bouilli.” I think it means boiled in French. Something about the leather. Who knew?) Perec’s analysis of his “work-table” goes on for four pages. Perec tells stories with details. Or, I should say, the stories become the details (or the details become the stories). It is beautiful stuff. Not all of us need to go as far as Perec does, but the beauty and specificity of details seem to be a hallmark of many of the short stories that show up in the best journals. Here’s a taste:
At the front of this small cavalcade rides the man who calls himself Tall John, his feet dangling past the belly of a gray pony that is first cousin to a sheep. Tall John wears a short hood or perhaps a long hat of coney fur, which covers his neck and his ears and merges around his face into a grizzled ruff where, HM surmises, the coney stops and the man begins. ¶ Since leaving the highway, they have slithered up and down and around so many hills that every six yards ridden marks one gained. Each ascent reveals more hills—bare, treeless wastes of sorrel and mauve, rain clouds tumbling down their slopes like the smoke of burnt villages.
—Jo Lloyd, “The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies” (from Zoetrope)
(I had to look up “coney.” Popularly spelled cony: a rabbit, or by extension, the fur therefrom. Who knew?) Imagine how this could have been written, sans details: They rode together on a trail through hills. Tall John sat at the front on a pony. What a loss.
Our job as writers—not always, but often—is to paint pictures, to construct images for our readers. And we do this with details. Your sensibility as a writer should tell you when enough is enough, but when it comes to details, more is often more.
Make your stories thick.
Edward Gorey put it perfectly (read this twice, read it three times):
This is the theory, incidentally, that anything that is art . . . is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.
— Edward Gorey, Floating Worlds, 2011
I read a beautiful story by Nancy Reisman a couple of years ago in New England Review. Here’s an excerpt (also, note the detail):
That morning in the pasture, the horses stayed photographically still. She learned: yes, they did this. One stood watch as the other napped. Mostly they slept standing, but also this. She watched the standing horse watch the napping horse; she watched the napping horse nap. What was it, then, to let go, to lay in the late season grass, and from there fall further, the light syrupy, the sky melting into fractals, the drumbeat of one’s small fears silenced. And as if the watcher’s breathing, audible then implicit, filled that drumbeat space; as if the standing horse’s very stillness stilled the percussive thrum.
—Nancy Reisman, “Horse Seasons” (from New England Review)
But let’s be clear: This story is not about horses. Or I say this wrong. The horses are but the something. We must work a bit for the something else. Just four sentences later, spiraling off from her memory of the two horses, the narrator thinks of her mother “in a series of rooms, in winter.” Reisman barely touches this deeper layer. But, with the mother’s mention, something begins to stir. There is suddenly revealed a great depth to this story—to be sure, a depth we, the readers, must mine.
Another way of putting this is that the best stories often have an inner story and an outer story. Which is which, I don’t think, is particularly important—it’s the interplay, the imbrication, of the two that adds thickness. One story will probably be quieter than the other. One story (probably the more important one) may be a single sentence. One story may be form or language, or even the writing of the story itself (for the record, I like postmodern fiction). One may be about horses. The other, a mother’s death.
Moby-Dick is and is not about cetaceacide. John Lanchester’s wonderful The Debt to Pleasure is and is (most certainly) not about a gastronomically infused journey across France. So ask yourself: What are my two stories? Strive to make your writing thick.
Make your writing subtle.
This actually relates to thickness and showing (contra telling). It’s about making the reader work a bit. Subtlety excites the imagination. It is leaving things unsaid. When I was going through my Raymond Carver phase (everyone, I think, must go through a Raymond Carver phase), I'd finish a story and wonder: What the hell was that about? But then I’d take a step back, I’d think about it for a while, I’d return to the story, and slowly, slowly, meaning would bloom.
Alida Monro once wrote of the poet Charlotte Mew that her writing gives “the essence, never the solution of an idea.” I think this is what I’m talking about: Essence. Hints. Glimpses. Clues.
I just read Deborah Eisenberg’s “The Third Tower” (from Ploughshares). It’s a great story. As far as I can tell, it’s about language and association (depth!). But the story is set in a strange near-future world. There is a “City” that the narrator never actually sees, in fact “she’s hardly seen the sky.” Perhaps “thousands of people were being shot as they returned to their homes at night.” Or perhaps not. There are fireworks, but the narrator never sees them through her closed shutters, and we begin to wonder if they’re really fireworks. And why are the shutters always closed? Where is this place? Everything is left blurry and obscure. The subtlety left me feeling a little lost. But I loved this story (as did the editors of the Best American Short Stories anthology).
Nail the ending.
I’m not sure where to begin with endings (perhaps this is apropos). I have just now, over the past few minutes, read several final paragraphs. It seems most of them have one thing in common: the ending is a bit enigmatic. Sometimes they feel strangely abrupt (most of them have this quality). Sometimes they seem digressive. Sometimes they swerve. Sometimes they twist. In nearly all of them, they jolt the reader in some way. It is the very end of a whip that stings. Make your endings sting a bit.
One of the best stories I read last year was Kathleen Alcott’s “Natural Light.” The story begins when the narrator discovers a photograph of her late mother displayed (the photograph) at a museum. The photograph is erotic, probably violent, but is otherwise not described (subtlety!). The narrator, in the pages that follow, must reexamine her impressions of her mother. She dances around marriage, addiction, suicide. It’s a heavy story. The last paragraph is just three sentences:
A field, I thought then. A yellow caned chair. A room up some stairs that was empty.
— Kathleen Alcott, “Natural Light” (from Zoetrope)
It’s been a while since I read this story, but I’m fairly certain that, prior to this ending, there is no mention of a field, no caned chair, absolutely no empty room up some stairs. A perfect example of an enigmatic ending. I believe it has something to do with suicide, but I’m not sure. Maybe that’s my point: I’m not sure. Let’s talk about. Let’s start a book club and discuss. Let’s wonder.
What I’m trying to say is that the best short stories often fail—I should write: they succeed in failing—to wrap things in nice, neat bows. Here’s one of my favorite short story endings:
It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.
— Denis Johnson, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” (from The Paris Review)
Since I honestly don’t have much more to say about endings, whose variations are limitless, here’s one more for inspiration:
The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.
—Vladimir Nabokov, “Portrait of My Uncle” (from The New Yorker, also Chapter 3 of Speak, Memory)
Trust me, this ending is a swerve. It’s enigmatic. It’s beautiful.
Incidentally, did you notice a similarity in all three endings above? A yellow caned chair. Some gigantic ferns. A bumblebee. A little detail goes a long way.
Clarity of intent.
The best short stories are entirely clear of their intent. These stories do what they set out to do. For better or for worse (and with notable glorious exceptions), most fiction writing these days tends to be fairly straightforward. One of the criteria I use in my algorithm for analyzing stories is “difficulty”; I’ve found it to be, on average, one of the lowest scoring of my categories. I’m quite simply (perfect word) rarely challenged. I’m not bragging. Fiction seems to have eased up a bit over the past thirty or forty years. My favorite writers (Borges, Joyce, Robbe-Grillet, Sebald, Gass, the aforementioned Perec) tend to skew difficult and often experimental, so the easing of fiction writing makes me a little sad (pace journals such as Conjunctions, Fugue, Collagist, and others that do frequently push the envelope). But there’s still some great challenging writing out there:
A rolling tongue, cast back from some other beyond—an opening, channel, entering, then later leaving. At the rim or edge of anything : by means of : the waking dream furls a bend or ply of mind—all symbols ossified, become the fabric of—the long song pealed, repealed as simple as the love/hate anthems, the Celt battles, the blood-shrouded terrain, where any town square might rightfully be called diamond, as seeing Coleraine from an aerial distance. Instances of simultaenous [sic] coexistence, but disuse is the staple of the dreamlife . . .
—E. G. Cunningham, “Women and Children” (from Fugue)
I loved this story. It takes me out of the mundanity of my sublunary existence, makes me want to slow down, silence my phone, turn off my Twitter feed*, and really read—it also makes me want to write things like : the mundanity of my sublunary existence (not to mention, to put spaces before and after my colons). The important thing here is that Cunningham, I do believe, is trying to challenge us. His obfuscations are intentional. The reader’s disorientation and possible frustration are part of the design. If you read the whole story, you’ll get it (or not).
If I’m editing a client’s story and find myself confused, the writer better be purposely challenging me. (Of course, subtle writing often pushes readers to work a bit, but we readers approach subtle writing from a position of curiosity, not frustration. Subtle writing is not difficult writing, per se.)
I feel I’ve made things difficult (apropos). Here’s what I’m trying to say: Unless you’re writing the next Finnegan’s Wake or Gravity’s Rainbow (et al), keep your writing clear. Don’t tax your readers, unless you’re trying to tax your readers. (But if you’re trying to tax said readers, by all means, tax the shit out of them!)
Needless to say (but I’ll say it), the above only scratches the surface of great short story writing. I’ve tried to introduce eight characteristics of the best stories I’ve read. More importantly, I’ve noticed that these eight features tend to be separators—they distinguish the fiction that shows up in the top journals and is often anthologized from fiction that shows up in less-established journals.
Please don’t think of these as rules (vide supra), but I do think keeping them in mind and trying to work them into your writing will help you get your stories published in literary journals. Good luck.
*I don’t really have a Twitter feed.
—Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.