When we hunt for clichés to remove from our manuscripts, we pay attention to characters, plot lines, and even phrases, but we have a habit of overlooking settings. Genres, however, tend to recycle details to the point that readers can predict the culture they’re going to encounter before opening a book. They might still enjoy the story if it’s crafted well, but they won’t experience the wonder of exploring unfamiliar territory. As writers, we should be striving for greatness, but we can’t achieve this goal if we rely on copy-and-pasted settings.
When you nestle into a corner of your house or favorite coffee shop with your laptop, you probably think of writing as a solitary activity. After all, no one can finish a first draft for you (unless it’s a coauthored project), so the task isn’t a communal experience. Or is it?
You’ve probably heard the expression “That was epic!” thousands of times. But what does it actually mean? Epic is used to describe a myriad of experiences, but we typically treat it as a synonym for big, awe-inspiring, or just plain cool. Movies are full of epic clashes between good and evil. And if you’re hungry enough, hamburgers can be epic too.
Have you ever filled out a character questionnaire and wondered how the protagonist’s birthday, favorite color, and hobbies are supposed to enhance your story? Many of the questionnaires you can find online focus on superficial details. But even the ones that probe deeper may fail to flesh out a character’s worldview. Every person has one, whether they acknowledge it or not, and it defines who they are, how they think, and why they live the way they do. Without it, you’ll struggle to shape characters readers can empathize with.
Short stories are a powerful medium. In just a few thousand words, they send us on meaningful emotional journeys that linger with us for the rest of our lives. “The Gift of the Magi” illuminates the tender beauty of selflessness, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” exposes us to the torture of a guilty conscience. As much as I love the drawn-out impact of a novel, the quick punch of a short story has an appeal all its own.