What is a short story? As soon as someone delivers a definition, some good writer will write a story that proves the theory wrong. About the only thing we can say for sure is that short stories are short and that they are written in what we call prose. Some attributes, however, seem to show up more often than not.
Twenty or so years ago, voice was the "rite of passage" into a successful writing career. Young writers were told that they should write until they developed their voice. The way to do this was to simply write (and read) as much as possible, having others read your work and comment on it, until your voice became distinct from others. The evidence to support this theory was generally drawn from the body of work of successful writers. Everyone agreed that you could read a Hemingway story, for instance, without factual evidence that the story was written by Hemingway, and recognize it as his work because of his distinctive voice. Faulkner provided an even clearer example of this philosophy. In more recent years, the notion that one must discover a unique voice has become a secondary issue as any number of successful writers have demonstrated that they can write in more than one narrative voice.
Nevertheless, a narrative voice that sounds like it could be anyone's voice or is bland and boring, or riddled with pointless clichés will fail to capture and hold the reader's attention. And a voice that is inconsistent will tend to confuse the reader about the narrator's attitude towards his/her characters and the story that is being told.
NOTE: It is quite common for writers in the early stages of their careers to imitate the writers they are reading or admire most. Often we are not even aware that we are doing this when we write.
Language is always uttered from some point of view; that is, it comes from someone. Scientific writers and legal writers (lawyers, the court) may try to hide this fact by writing in a voice so passive that it begins to sound as if it were uttered from some completely impartial god outside of the human experience, but no one argues more passionately than those folks who write within these two areas.
When writing a short story we use one of the following points of view:
If you've written a story in third person, try it in first. This can be an especially fruitful exercise if you've had trouble making the character sympathetic.
A wonderful example of the use of point of view in a novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Most casual readers remember this novel as a third person novel, but it is actually told from the first person point of view. We learn everything from Nick's perspective, Gatsby's neighbor.
As a variation on the exercise, you can take someone else's published story and render passages, especially paragraphs of narrative of at least a half page in length in a point of view other than that which the author used. Once again, watch what happens to the language as you change the point of view. What is it you need to add, take away? How does this change affect the emotional relationship the reader develops with the character.
The T.S. Eliot/John Gardner Killer Exercise: This exercise is quite possibly the most difficult, demanding and important exercise a writer can ever do. The poet and critic, T. S. Eliot, coined the phrase "objective correlative" to designate what he believed was the most important element in writing: Rendering the description of an object so that the emotional state of the character from whose point of view we receive the description is revealed WITHOUT ever telling the reader what that emotional state is or what has motivated it.
The late John Gardner, recognized in his lifetime as the leading creative writing teacher in the United States, developed the following exercise for students:
A middle-age man is waiting at a bus stop. He has just learned that his son has died violently. Describe the setting from the man's point of view WITHOUT telling your reader what has happened. How will the street look to this man? What are the sounds? Odors? Colors? That this man will notice? What will his clothes feel like? Write a 250 word description.
Go back to the previous page? Go on to the next page? Go to poetry?