While I can’t honestly tell anyone how to create a “perfect” short story—I’ll let you know when I write one!—I can lay out some dos and don’ts that will help you tell a whole story in relatively few words.
Stories are terrific for when you have a concept or want to explore a character without settling in for the long project of a novel, but they are definitely not practice for writing a novel: the short story is an art form unto itself and as such has its own rules.
Though something must change from the beginning of a story to its end, you can accomplish that in a shorter span than you might think. Creating a world in under 7,000 words isn’t easy, but it’s fun. Don’t worry about writing too little, you can always go back in and add more; writing too much and cutting it down is a more complicated, even painful, task. I once cut a story from 20,000 words, practically a novella, to 5,000, and while it wasn’t easy, it was a good lesson in how few words you really need to write an excellent story.
I love stories, reading them and writing them; I’ve written three collections of them and intend to write many more. Economy in all aspects is the key, I’ve found. Here are some tips for keeping your story within a reasonable length while creating a compelling narrative arc.
Consider your plot
If you’re in the mood to write about a yearlong sea voyage you’re going to need more than 7,000 words. Most of my stories take place in the span of a day to a week. Stories are more about concepts—for instance, marital discord or thwarted desires, to name two out of a million—and driven by characters, so you want to keep it straightforward on the plot level, deep on the concept level, and have only as many characters as necessary. If your story is about a woman traveling alone who meets a man on a train, we likely don’t need to know about her sister, her boss, her best friend, unless these peripheral characters add to the plotline in an interesting way.
Put action over exposition
There is very little room for exposition in a story, so keep what you tell, rather than show, short. We can find out as much about as character by the things they do as what you tell us about them, and action drives the story forward, exposition does not.
Keep dialogue precise
When your character asks a question of another character, they don’t necessarily need to precisely answer. For instance, “How are you?” “Fine, and you?” will read better as “How are you?” “The store was closed when I went to get a bottle of vodka.” So, we know how and what character two is: disappointed, wanting a drink, perhaps even a problem drinker. Boring becomes intriguing, and the reader will want to know what comes next. Keep your dialogue both tight and revealing; cut and rework any dialogue that seems repetitive or unnecessary, and you’ll see how much more quickly the story moves.
Be spare with description
Though you may want to describe something in detail, you don’t have the space. Identify one or two details that are germane to the character or locale. If a character has unusual green eyes, just mention that feature and the reader can imagine the rest. If an old house smells like mothballs, we get the picture right away.
You can tell the reader that a character is nasty, or better yet, you can make them behave or speak in a nasty way. Similarly, internal dialogue tells the reader a lot, as does a physical feature like, for instance, the character has body odor. Show the reader only what’s most important about a character and trust them to read between the lines.