Those of us who write (or read) mostly novels are used to dragging out the story over several scenes and chapters. We set the stage, introduce characters, infuse the narrative with backstory, build plot, build plot, build plot, write very dramatic death scenes at the climax, then finish up with a brief but satisfying summary of what happened afterwards. The problem is, we approach short stories as if they are mini-novels…then wonder why we can’t make it work. Here are three things I’ve learned about writing the perfect short story:
1. Find the right place to start. Picture the whole story in your head, as if it were a full length novel, and identify the climax—the moment the hero makes his or her ultimate decision, and people die or escape or kiss or whatever. Write that scene. And only that scene. Now, read it. Does it make sense by itself? If not, add backstory in small amounts until it does. If you really have to add additional scenes, add them, but only before the climax, never after—and keep your red pen ready.
2. Build the story like a joke. Whether it is a comedy or not, think: Setup. Punchline. Open with a punchy first sentence and build quickly to your climax; your last sentence is your punchline.
3. Cut extraneous details. No more than three main characters, and that’s pushing it. Don’t describe whole landscapes; only what your character notices in the heat of their passion, fear, grief, whatever. If possible, don’t even include character names. Look carefully at every sentence, every word. If it can be cut, it should be—you will find the phrasing hits harder the more concise you are.