The primary problem with the length of a short story is exposition. Every word of exposition we use is a word we can’t use on the present story, this might sound dramatic but we’re specifically looking at stories less than two thousand words and they’re quickly used up. Often the best way is to keep explicit exposition to a minimum while implying everything else. For example do we need to tell readers that a couple has been married a long time or can we have the couple interacting in a way that shows they’ve been married a long time. Long-term couples know each other’s habits and we can show this through things as simple as one knowing how the other takes their tea without asking.
There are two important questions when it comes to exposition in short stories and they are: Do we need to know this? Do we need to tell this? As we’ve discussed previously sometimes telling is the most direct way to communicate something in the least words; the example I used in the previous articles was detectives gathering to discuss what they’d found rather than showing all the door-to-door. However, sometimes telling things can be detrimental and have less impact than showing. What will have more emotional impact? Telling the reader this couple have been married a long time without showing them acting like they have? Or showing this couple have been married a long time without telling us that they have?
In the context of the story do we need to know this couple have been together a long time? Yes.
Do we need to tell the reader they have? No.
Our readers don’t need everything spelled out for them, in all probability they’ve met long-term couples, seen them on television, and read about them in books, they know the cues without us saying ‘and they knew how to make the tea after twenty years of marriage’. That they know how to make the tea is shown through the act of making the tea.
However, if the couple are not interacting, perhaps it’s a story about one of them having died, we may want to say how long they had been married or mention things like missing the way they made the tea. This may not be directly telling the reader how long they had been together, but it is telling the reader what they missed. Even if it’s a moment where they look to the spot where their tea would be if their partner had made it and we mention that it’s not there then this is telling. If we didn’t use telling at this point then it would be difficult to convey that they’re looking for the cup of tea their partner usually made them. The action of looking at an empty spot on a table, or even a coaster, is more ambiguous than reaching out to the empty spot on the bed. In the latter case we know the character is looking for their partner, but in the case of the table they could be looking for anything that could be put on a table. Telling the reader that they are looking for the cup of tea their partner always made them at this time of day/while they were working/other reason therefore becomes more emotive then looking at the spot on the table.
Often when we’re beginning to experiment with short stories finding where implication works better than telling can be tricky. It’s a skill that every writer learns through a combination of practice and reading, and it varies from writer to writer depending upon their style, some writers are more verbose and others more bare bones. Whatever our style we need to consider what needs to be in the story, what doesn’t and the best way to present the information, not only because of word count limitations but because it will help us improve our editing and our writing.