The short story is the perfect form for the Age of the Short Attention Span. If you’re thinking of writing a short story yourself, keep this in mind (before you move on and start thinking about something else): Keep it short.
A short story running amok will before long turn into a novel, something nobody wants to read unless it has plenty of sex and violence — which is beyond the scope of this essay.
Before you sit down to write your short story, sharpen one pencil – just one – and when it wears down and will no longer write, you’re finished. If you run out of paper before that – even better literotica. The best thing, without a doubt, would be for the pencil point to break, so that you can’t write any more.
Always keep in mind: Brevity is the soul of wit. (This piece of advice, ironically, was written by Shakespeare, who went on and on in hundreds of plays and sonnets but never wrote a single short story.)
Now that you’re prepared to keep things SHORT, you can choose a subject for your story. With blessed brevity in mind, zero in on a subject that would lend itself to the form. The Napoleonic Wars? – no. How about – an orange? An orange in a bowl. No, an orange lying on a table.
How did the orange get on the table? Maybe someone took it out of the bowl and put it there. Why? Maybe so that someone could easily reach it. Maybe someone – some kind-hearted person – took the orange out of the bowl that it was in so that someone else – maybe a dwarf – could reach it. Maybe a Russian dwarf. And maybe the kind-hearted person – who could be a tattooed lady with a lisp, for instance – is in love with the dwarf.
Sex and violence, no, but romance and colorful characters – by all means.
Okay, assuming the lead has not run out on your pencil, you’ll want to come up with a compelling ending, something to leave people laughing or weeping or thinking. “The tattooed lady and the dwarf lived happily ever after” has been done before and is a cop-out anyway, but on the other hand you don’t want to be TOO colorful and end up jarring the reader’s sensibilities with something like “Griselda the Fat Lady, who had loved the dwarf in secret for years, covered Lavinia’s mouth with one enormous paw as she slept.”
How about: “Lavinia carefully placed the orange and her paramour, Sergei, in the trunk, and, summoning the porter, she left the hotel.” This is an ending suitably conclusive yet tinged with mystery.
To sum up, story length, subject matter, and an ending are three of the most important elements to keep in mind when writing a short story. There’s another element, however, more important than all the others. I’d tell you what it is, but my pencil point’s about to run out.
I’m a writer living near Nashville, and maybe the only one within a 50-mile radius who’s never written a song. Writing fiction is my preference, but journalism provides my daily bread. I’m from the Clark Kent school of journalism — I never carry a pad to take notes, but rely on my super-memory. Actually, in my stories I make up quotes, making people sound more interesting and well-spoken than they are, so they never object. You know how Truman Capote (“In Cold Blood”) gave birth to the “non-fiction novel?” I’m working on popularizing the “fictional news” story.