A story is an account of a character struggling to reach a goal — Steven Schoen
Say what you want about what fiction is or isn’t. Go on and on about all the rules about how to write the stuff. For me, anything goes, but the one thing, that one thing that is essential to a writer of fiction is the ability to consciously make choices.
By consciously making choices I mean that whatever ends up on the page the writer had better know damn well why it’s there in the first place. There are happy accidents, true, but those are few and far between. Ultimately, there are no mistakes for the writer; a choice is made, and the choice is there on the page.
The hardest fiction to write is short. A short story, not flash fiction, which is an entirely different kettle of Darjeeling, is the hardest work of fiction writing because it is highly structured. by structure I mean it has required elements, which more or less need to be in their rightful places and the rightful times. A short story is about time and space. What needs to be there is the result of the writer’s choices. Take character.
The writer’s first choice focuses on the character (…character struggling). The writer has to decided who the character is; what does she or he want; his or her proclivities; that sort of thing. The character should be someone the reader worries about and cares about. It is a struggle remember. So your readers will, and should worry. But what of that struggling bit? Another choice.
The writer needs to know exactly what it is the character wants, the singular desire that drives them forward. For our purposes, the singular desire or struggle cannot be some namby-pamby easily surpassed hurdle, but a seemingly insurmountable one, with plenty of complications. The complications are where the writer makes several choices as the struggle ensues, escalates and climaxes.
The writer will choose what complicates the character’s desire, the struggle, to achieve that singular thing. The complications must mirror the larger conflict in some way. In other words, the complications are the struggle’s “mini-mes.” For example, your story is a character coming to terms with the death of a loved one at the hands of a drunk driver. The struggle is to forgive. All complications leading up to the choice of whether or not to forgive the driver must be structured as to be about forgiveness in variation of the struggle’s theme. The variation, though, must begin relatively benignly and become increasingly more dire or serious or on track for the struggle’s big moment of confrontation or conflict resolution.
Speaking of Resolution
One of the final choices the writer makes is to decide how it all ends — not necessarily happily, even though most will tell you readers love happy endings. Famously, some stories don’t really end but linger; think Joyce’s The Dead or any number of Raymond Carver short stories. They simply stop sometimes, but it does so saying something about the character and the struggle, and is again a choice.
When the writer signs up to write a short story the writer is bound by structure, which can only be the result of conscious choices. If the writer isn’t interested in highlighting structured conflict, then they should by all means make the choice to write a novel or an essay instead. A short story is a structured lie.