I wonder how many hundreds of posts there already are on writerly blogs with that title? Oh well, bear with me while I add my own.
I was reading Short Circuit in the bath the other night, and came across this paragraph which I loved, in the essay by Alison MacLeod. Hope she doesn't mind me reproducing a snippet here:
A poem is many things, but it is fundamentally about language and image. A novel is many things, but it is, above all, an architecture of events. A short story is language, image and event but it is fundamentally about character. The plot of a short story is nothing more than the unfolding of a character, or perhaps the unfolding of a couple of characters. That's the beauty of the form, the terrific sense of intimacy it can offer us.
The unfolding of a character. Yes, yes, yes! Start with your character, give him or her a problem, and let them resolve the problem in their own way, revealing their true personality as they do so. That's the formula, if there is such a thing, for a successful short story.
While writing a story a couple of weeks ago, I had that marvellous experience you sometimes get, when the story wrote itself. My initial idea had been to write about a woman who was sitting alone in a police interrogation room. She'd been set up by her partner, and was now accused of murder. Well, after scratching my head for a few minutes I came up with the following first line, which also gave me the voice: They've left me in here to stew.
The story instantly became part confessional, part monologue. And my character came to life, and led the way. By the time I got to the end, just an hour later, she'd revealed to me that she was the murderer, her poor partner was a dupe, and she'd not only killed the person she was accused of killing, but also someone else (her partner's father) years before. She was a right cow, and the least pleasant character I've ever invented. Though as I say, she kind of invented herself. She unfolded, as the story progressed.
(Had to work hard in the edit to imply she would get her comeuppance, to give the story a chance in the womag markets! You can have horrible characters as long as they are going to have to pay for their crimes eventually.)
The terrific sense of intimacy. Oh yes. The best short stories take us right inside the character's head, and for a few minutes we live and breathe as them. Because they are so short, they need to pack intense emotion into very few words. The writer must choose those few words carefully, for maximum impact. In a novel you have the luxury of unfolding a character slowly, using several scenes to develop that sense of intimacy. In a short story you need to get there in a thousand words or so. They will have to be the right words.
And if this post makes no sense to you (quite possible, I've been at the amber nectar), try this one instead, on Nicola Morgan's excellent blog, which contains some eminently sensible advice from the brilliant Sally Zigmond.