The short story is a basic unit of writing. In most ways, the novel is simply an amalgamation of connected short stories. For me, the short story has mostly been an exercise, practice sessions on the path to a serious work. After hundreds of short stories, I have come to appreciate the value of the short story, in and of itself. I still am reluctant to read short stories but I like to write them.
I don’t read them, because if they are good, I’m left hungry for the novel it should become.
The first step to writing a short story is choosing a conflict-resolution. Every short story must have a conflict-resolution. Now, I’m aware that there are writers who skip this step, but from my perspective, they are not writing a short story, but rather a prose tone poem. Nothing wrong with that, but it is not what we’re discussing.
That said, however, the conflict can be social, personal or psychological. A psychological conflict can appear to be a conflictless tone-poem when written, but the subtle effects of resolution will be present.
Next, we have to decide how the story will be told. In all cases, the resolution must come at the end of the story, or it isn’t a resolution. So the telling of the story must introduce the conflict, develop the conflict and then resolve the conflict. Sometimes, this series of decisions are the most difficult, because the structure requires the resolution at the end, like the punch-line of a joke.
Finally, and completely intermingled with the decision about structure, is the choice of narrator. This may divide into several decisions. Will the story be told first person or third person? A first person narrator has the advantage of involvement and the disadvantage/advantage of limited knowledge. A first person narrator must have access to enough information to tell the story. This requirement can make first person narration impossible. On the other hand, this requirement can allow the first person narrator to tell the story without making the reader feel like important information was simply denied to them. A first person narrator can relate the surprise of the resolution in the same way it occurred to them. “I didn’t know and then I found out.”
Selecting a first person narrator also involves choosing the character that will tell the story. It can be the main character, a secondary character, a friend of a friend, a guy from the same town.
The biggest advantage of the first person narrator is that they will have their own voice. This is the quality that makes first person narration so attractive. Every narrator must have a voice to be engaging.
Third person narration has the advantage of knowing everything, so there is no hidden quality that escapes their view. The worst side of third person narration is the lack of voice. A person who knows everything is no person. The best solution to this problem is to make the third person narrator an uninvolved first person narrator. “I know the story, it has nothing to do with me, but I’ll tell it.” If you look at great novels with third person narrators, you’ll usually find this contrivance.
The last touch of a short story, which defines my literary needs, is that the beginning and ending of any short story should be a reflection of the whole story and a restatement of each other. The title should capture the resolution. These qualities give the story a sense of pre-determination. I knew how it would start. I knew how it would end. I knew what was in the middle.
The rest is just telling the story, always keeping the whole story in mind.