My friend Susan Quinn has had an interesting series of blog posts on short fiction and these posts have got me thinking about the differences in structure between novels and short stories.
Now, sometimes there isn't any real difference; the structure is the same, only shrunken to appetizer size. The basic parts are all still there: hook and introduction, character, conflict, rising action, obstacles, climax, and denouement. All the old villains. But sometimes the shortness of short fiction allows (or forces) variations.
Now, to be fair, there are experimental novels that play around with structure and form, but these are fairly few and far between even in the literary genre. The narrative forms of novels are pretty standard (though there are lots of possibilities for variation within them).
But in short fiction these structures can be attenuated. Writers are often told to start the action in media res (that is, start the story in importanct action and not endless backstory). In short fiction, though, there is the possibility of a sort of structural in medias res. The structure can be reduced. Not only can aspects of structure be down-sized to fit the smaller space, they can be left out altogether or combined as one. With limited space, for example, the hook, conflict, and climax could all be melded into one, with the rising action tossed out the window.
Short stories are narrower, more precarious structures. They balance on turning points that must do many things in a tiny space, and if they fail, the story will fail. The benefit of the novel is that it provides a chance to build a wide base. An interesting character, an interesting premise, and difficult obstacles that create conflict... these allow the writer to build a story, its excitement, and its impact, moving to a ripe conclusion that will hopefully affect the reader (the difficulty is that this is, well, difficult to do). Novels have momentum, a mathematical growth of force based on the novel's mass and velocity.
Short stories, however, particularly the very short stories that veer from traditional narrative structures, are very finely balanced. The brief flit of the character's actions across the page must be carefully supported by the structure and thematic movement of the piece. Think flying buttresses: elegant and airy structures that seem like decoration but actually, you know, hold the building up.
One of the biggest differences in the structures of novels and short stories is the character arc. A novel is driven along by two parallel arcs: the story arc and the character arc. The story arc is a plot structure, a series of interconnected events that rise toward a climax. The character arc is another structure, the internal structure, where a series of internal events slowly shapes the character toward a change, an understanding, or an epiphany. It's the way these two arc structures intertwine and play off each other that drives a novel toward a conclusion.
In short fiction, the character arc is often limited or missing. There may not be the space or time to develop a character, reveal his history, and then face obstacles that necessitate internal change (though there are obviously short stories that do this). What comes to replace this character arc and movement is thematic movement. Some such stories come out as thought experiments, with the goal being intellectual engagement rather than emotional engagement. But sometimes theme can be melded with character, and this thematic movement can take the place of character arc. A symbolic or metaphorical connection between character and theme can help create a bridge for the reader, widening the character's depth and appeal and allowing an emotional connection to the character and events of the story. Situation, setting, and language must be carefully chosen to create mood, meaning, and emotion; they must, in a sense, help replace the long history of a character's life on the page. The time taken to create emotional attachment must be foreshortened.
When such stories work, they create a moment, a sort of triangulation, where character, event, and theme come together to create a unique situtation, one that draws the reader into the story and creates an emotional investment. Which, of course, is easier said than done.