How can you fit a whole narrative when writing a short story?

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Answered by: Sam, An Expert in the Write Short Stories Category
When writing a short story, it is not your objective to squeeze an entire narrative onto 5 pages. There is no need to sacrifice content for plot. The short story is meant to give a glimpse of a world, instead of an entire panorama.

Some of the best short stories offer the reader one scene that is filled with enough detail and character development to allow it to stand on its own--read "The Killers," by Ernest Hemingway or "A Good Man is Hard To Find," by Flannery O'Conner. Unlike a novel, the reader must understand the world of a short story as early as the first sentence. There is little room for an introduction as you are bound to a tight format.

Hemingway's story, "The Killers," opens as follows:

The door of Henry’s lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.

     “What’s yours?” George asked them.

     “I don’t know,” one of the men said. “What do you want to eat, Al?”

     “I don’t know,” said Al. “I don’t know what I want to eat.”

Outside it was getting dark. The streetlight came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in.

The start to the story seems basic and unrevealing. Two men enter a restaurant. But after a closer look, each detail proves to illustrate something about the characters and the scene. For example, the "two men" that enter are not named by the narrator. Both the bartender, George, and patron, Nick Adams, are given names by the narrator but the two strangers are intentionally left anonymous. Instantly we are told to experience the story through George and Nick's eyes and to be skeptical of the other two.

The dialogue between the characters serves to further intensify the scene and raise questions about the strangers. After being asked what they want, the two reply that they don't know a total of three times. The repetition seems forced and rehearsed, a red flag to the reader that there is something fishy about the two.

Hemingway achieves all of this without embellishing on visual details or offering back stories on the characters. He dives into the scene and we are forced to dive with him, with no time to ask questions or speculate over the plot. The sparseness of the opening scene both creates tension and dictates the pace of the story, which remains quite fast throughout.

Of course, when writing a short story you need not adhere to Hemingway's techniques. You do not need to create tension or imbue mistrust in the reader. However, it is imperative that the reality of your story becomes as knowable as Hemingway's, and does so just as quickly. It must not start with an "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," or certainly not a "once upon a time." Your story must open after the action has started, otherwise you will lose the reader at the starting line.

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