In my previous post, I covered sticking to a single theme or event for a short story. In this post, I'm going to cover what details to include and what things to leave out within the limited confines of the short story.
The Devil in the Details
I remember reading someone on Twitter posting something saying that if you don't describe what your character looks like, they just imagine a blob. That might be something worth heeding for a novel, but you cannot take it to heart in a short story. Sometimes a description of what a character looks like might not be required, or could even detract from your narrative.
I always follow the rule that I only reveal the details that are necessary to advance the story to the end. It might be nice to talk about a character with blazing red hair that shoots lasers from his elbows, but if it isn't going to be used for some purpose in the story, it can be left out. In other words, if you've given these details, then your character better try to blend in with the natives in the jungle and use his elbow lasers to subdue a stalking jaguar.
The same goes for painting the scene around the character. If you describe the snowy wilderness in flowery detail, but then you fail to ever have your character marvel at it, comment on it, shiver or interact with it in any way, it's a useless detail. Details in short stories are like a set of stairs, they have to lead to the top. You don't build a table in another room and put up wallpaper when you're building stairs.
Most writers have a complete picture of the scenes they write in their heads, but short stories often do not demand those details get translated onto the page, which can be difficult for some writers to accept.
The Power of Inference
One of the great things about communication in general is the ability to say things without actually saying them. You can use words to imply a meaning without actually having to write them. (Which I could have done with the sentence immediately before this one, and you would have understood what I meant.)
In a short story, there is beauty in the subtle crafting of sentences that can open the reader's imagination and allow them to catch meaning when the words don't appear on the page. These can be simple things, such as carefully choosing a character's name to give away his or her ethnicity, or using language common to a certain area or historical era.
At the very least, it is a way to trim word count from your story, and follows the writing maxim of showing rather than telling. It gives your reader a little credit that they already know certain things that you don't have (and frankly, shouldn't) explain. You don't always have to hold the reader's hand the whole way through the story. This really applies to all writing, but it is especially effective in short stories, where words are at a premium.
There is a fine line you must walk in determining what details to include in a short story, and there are no hard and fast rules about them, save only that your details should always advance the story. Don't craft a paragraph about the protagonist's fear of spiders, complete with a short anecdote about why he or she is afraid if you don't plan on using that detail later on. Does the detail explain an attitude prevalent in the story? Does it present an obstacle for a character to overcome? These are the litmus questions you can ask yourself when deciding.
Don't miss next week's post about the tricky art of editing a short story.