What Is a Bad Story

I’m not certain there are bad stories, only stories written badly. Certainly, there are stories more intriguing, suspenseful, and gripping than others, but decent writing can elevate an adequate story too good and a good story can be reduced to meaningless screed with bad writing.

What produces a bad story is a writer trying too hard or disingenuous writing. It is usually overwriting that causes the problem.

Sometimes a description of a character may be in such detail the story is lost. The description of a character appears to be nothing more than showing-off the writer’s ability to string flowery words together.

Where does this come from? Likely, reading bad writing; writing that violates the above. One reads bad stuff and thinks it is good; after all, it’s been published, it got by the editors, and somebody somewhere said it was a good story and the author is a good writer.

There are plenty of famous writers who write badly.

Recently a short story touted as good was suggested to me. I got to the third paragraph and a character was said to have a confused look. He tilted his head like a cat finishing a bowl of milk. Obviously, the writer was likely the only one to witness this cat-tilted-head-after-milk phenomenon. I had no idea what he meant. I thought about his description for the next page and a half—a page and a half of dialogue I refused to reread. The writer lost me. All that was needed, “Confused, Jamie tilted his head.” The lesson; don’t allow your love of cats interfere with a good story.

One of the most fascinating stories I have read was a short story by Ambrose Bierce, One Summer Night. This is a very good story because it doesn’t overdo. In addition, the conventional rules about good writing are nearly all broken—except for one; he didn’t overwrite, over-describe, or write over any reader’s head.

Sizable words will make an impressive narration trend toward the abominable—within a word. “Abominable” should only precede “Snowman.” The words chosen should be simple and direct. Use words everyone will understand. Leave the big words to impress people who read bad literature and think it’s good. And here is a little additional tip; us words that sound like action or thing described—if possible. For example, the word “misogyny” sounds too much like “massage.” It may take longer to write but “woman-hater” has always worked for me.

What is a bad story? It is a story that gets lost in the words. Cut away the words to reveal the beauty of the story.


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