The short story is to the novel what brandy is to wine; they are both made from the same raw material, but brandy offers a quite different, more intense experience, and the short story is a literary form that demands the art of distillation.
It’s as well to keep the structure as simple as possible. Multiple point-of-view, flashbacks and sub-plots are tricky things to use in a short story: it can be done, but it is, quite simply, easier to write and to read a short story that offers one point of view, linear time and one plot. If there are breaks in the narrative to introduce a new point of view or a flashback, the reader can put the story down, and there is always the danger that he will never pick it up again. If he is taken straight through the story in the here and now, he is much more likely to read on to the end in one sitting.
Some stories require flashbacks, when the whole point lies in the past and it isn’t possible to have a viewpoint character remember it. I’m not saying for one moment that flashbacks must never be employed. But if they are too long, the reader can feel removed from the action, so it’s as well to keep them brief, and, of course, to the point. The exception is when whole stories are told in flashback, with the denouement usually investing the opening scene with extra meaning.
Multiple point-of-view can cause the reader to feel a little overwhelmed. Two points of view can be happily accommodated, but more than that requires very careful handling if the characters are to be examined in any depth. You must put yourself in the reader’s position – he has to be introduced to these characters, get to know them and recognise them when he meets them again. Too many within the space of a few thousand words, and he might give up.
Short stories can accommodate a sub-plot, especially if it serves as a counterpoint to the main plot, but everything – including the sub-plot – works towards a single denouement that resolves everything that has gone before. Resolution does not mean that everything ends happily ever after; the ending might be tragic, might be bitter-sweet, might be funny, might even leave the characters and their problems still up in the air, but it will resolve the sweep of the story. If the last line of a well-written short story is at the bottom of a page, the reader will know that it’s finished; he won’t turn the page to see if there’s any more.
But as I’ve said before, there are no rules.
Many short stories have been written that don’t
conform to anything I’ve said here. All I’m
saying is that if you are new to writing short stories,
it’s as well not to give yourself too many challenges – keep
it simple, and you’ll not go far wrong.