A few days ago, I mentioned one approach to keeping a story short: use as few viewpoint characters as possible (one is right for a short story), avoid moving from one location to another so that you can keep your description down, and of course limit the number of major conflicts that you handle in the piece.
A second way to keep your story short is to avoid writing parts of the tale altogether, truncating the story, allowing the reader to imagine what happened or to make an educated guess.
For example, years ago Ernest Hemingway wrote a story in which a man receives a telegram notifying him that his son has died. In an effort to handle his grief, he goes to a local pub and has a drink, where he voices his anger at god. He then goes home and hangs himself.
But if you've read the story, "A Clean, Well-lighted Place," you'll recognize that I've just told you more than Hemingway did. You see, Hemingway only published the middle scene. He cut off the opening where the old man got the letter, and he got rid of the ending where the man hangs himself. Instead, he leaves only a middle scene where a man has a drink in a pub and is in a place so dark that he seems unable to escape. The reader is left to imagine what happens next, but the tone reveals that no happy ending can come for this man.
Now, I've seen this technique used plenty of times. For example, Ray Vuykovich (I hope I'm not misspelling his name too badly) wrote a story a few years ago about three cowboys who spent the afternoon trying to break a horse. The tone tells us that the horse is fine, but the cowboys are broken. We didn't need to see the afternoon. We don't need to be told what happens next. The tone tells us everything. A lot of story is packed into that thousand words or so.
So, if you look at it, a traditional short story has several parts.
1) The opening reveals the characters, the conflicts, and the milieu. It carries us to a major turning point where the protagonist's world changes dramatically and irreparably.
2) The middle can best be put into three parts―a first attempt that the protagonists makes to resolve a problem.
3) After the first attempt, the problem typically broadens or deepens, and the protagonist struggles to resolve the problem a second time by bringing greater resources to bear.
4) Again the problem deepens or broadens, and the protagonist struggles once again to overcome his challenge. This third attempt often ends in near failure―but the protagonist find a way despite all obstacles.
5) Last of all the story is wrapped up in a final scene where some sort of stable new order comes to bear. The final scene, or denouement, signals to the audience that the story is indeed over.
Now, if you think about it, in most short stories you can leave off the opening. Instead, you can open with the protagonist struggling to fix the problem. If you have an adventurer on a spaceship who crashes into a meteor, for example, you don't have to show us the crash. Simply start with the protagonist struggling to fix his ship!
In fact, in many stories, you can delete the first or even the second attempt to resolve the problem. For example, let's say that you have an old woman whose grandson has stolen money from her purse in order to fuel his drug habit. What is her first reaction? Obviously, it will be to go talk to the boy, to beg for the money back―or demand it. That's what we normally do. So forget it. You might now decide to open the story with her marching into the police department.
So now you've cut off two possible scenes from the short story. Can you cut more?
Maybe you don't want a denouement. That last little scene that tells the reader that the story is over, can often go bye-bye.
Let's take the grandmother for example. Perhaps in the opening she goes to her grandson's house, and while there, she notes that the heat isn't on. The place is as cold as a tomb. So she demands her money, and the grandson makes a threat. "Keep the police out of it." She asks, "Or else what?" But he's too smart to voice the threat. So he just stares at her with cold, dead eyes.
So she goes to the police, and they tell her that her suspicions aren't enough to give grounds for a warrant. She insists that her grandson was the only one at the house. He's basically "a good boy," but she knows that he hasn't broken his habit. "Some things are more powerful than family" she tells the police. "Some things are more irresistible than decency or honor." He's been to rehab several times, and he still steals the Percocet from her medicine cabinet. Now he's stolen her Social Security money―all $699, and without it she won't be able to survive through the month. She tells the officers that "I don't know what this world is coming to. There's no decency left in people."
She's hungry, and her back hurts because her pills are gone.
So when the police don't help, in desperation she takes her little pistol and goes into that house, a house so cold that she has to wear a sweater to beat back the chill. She plans to put her grandson out of his misery. Fumbling, she opens the door without knocking, so that she won't alert her grandson. She enters, and suddenly sees the bug coming out of the shadows, his eyes glazed and emotionless, like pits gouged in ice. . . .
Okay, so it's not poetry yet, but we've now taken a climactic scene and chopped it in half. We don't need an ending. We know what happens to grandma. A little bit of foreshadowing early on tells us that when she goes to put an end to her grandson's misery, instead he puts her out of her misery. We could tell this story in one continuous scene―her talking to the policeman, raving, pleading and then returning to her car, loading her gun, and breaking into her grandson's house.
So it's possible to truncate a story―cut off its beginning or end―in order to keep a tale to your target length.
But I'd like to warn you against that.
While truncating can be done to good effect, the truth is that most people prefer to read traditional stores with all of their parts intact. When I worked as the coordinating judge for the Writers of the Future contest, I used to read hundreds of stories every quarter. Very often I would pass beautifully written truncated stories on to the other judges. They almost never won. In fact, in the ten years that I was a judge, I can't recall a single truncated story that did win.
More to the point, truncated stories work best with highly literate audiences. But if you're writing to a broad audience, you need to be considerate of your audiences' needs. When I wrote my first novel, I imagined that I was writing to college-educated adults. When I went to my first book signing, I was sitting at a little table and three young teenagers came up. They were looking at a nearby display of my books, and one young man said, "I've heard that this is the best book ever written. Shawn and Jake and Kyle are all reading it." Another kid who couldn't have been thirteen said, "Yeah, Brian and Kelly and Raymond are all reading it, too!"
That's when I realized that I'd made a huge mistake. My audience wasn't all made of college-educated adults. Many of my readers were twelve or thirteen. Plenty of them had never been to college at all. Some of my readers aren't bright at all.
Now that I'm writing fantasy it's even worse. When I visit elementary schools, I find that about ten percent of children aged nine and ten are trying to read adult fantasy novels. They often have a tough time of it. They're just learning to read, and many of them have difficulty with things like truncated endings, untrustworthy narrators, or omniscient viewpoint in a story.
So consider using this tool, but use it wisely and sparingly.