I have a love/hate relationship with short stories.

I’ve written a few of them, and some have been published. I don’t write a lot of short stories and since I’ve been publishing with some regularity, I have seen maybe 40% of them published, which is a pretty good—maybe even way better than average—record of success. But there’s success then there’s success.

Based on, “if you write it and it’s published,” then yes, all of my published short stories have been successful. But judged on the criteria, “and I’m not embarrassed to have people read it,” I’ve had a less “successful” run.

Once again, this is not me being charmingly self-effacing. This is me wanting to be as good at this whole writing thing as I can possibly be, and that requires some level of realism and self-critique. Recently, I’ve been exposed to a few more short stories than had become normal for me. I’ve been judging a short story contest, I’ve been teaching a class that includes weekly writing assignments and since it’s not realistic to ask my students to write a novel every week those come in the form of short stories, I’ve been reading more short stories, and I’ve been writing more of them myself, too.

This has got me thinking about short stories and what makes them good and what makes them bad. Let’s stipulate, first of all, that you should know how to write. Short stories require properly constructed sentences, words spelled correctly—that kind of “detail stuff.”

But one thing has come to mind lately in terms of my own work, and that is what I’ve come to call “Character vs. Gimmick.”

As a kid I read a lot of short stories. I was (and still am) a huge fan of Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and many other great practitioners of the form. One of the things that drew me to the short story was the surprise ending, the cruel twist of fate. And this is what’s gotten in my way, too.

I’ve way too often (and let’s just call it, people: Once is too often) approached a short story gimmick first then tried to force in some other “ancillary” stuff like characters, theme, plot, and other annoying little details like that. What I ended up with is either the best case scenario in terms of that beginning, which is that I never finished the story in the first place. The basic failure mode is that I forced myself to finish it then forced it on editors who then mercifully turned it away. The third option has only, thankfully, happened once, and that was that one of these gimmick stories was actually published. God help us all.

Here are a few examples…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  2. Great post. Always amazing to see how genre-transcending the importance of character is.

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