Advice from one of the great writing teachers of the 20th century, the late novelist Doris Betts, who spent many years on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
In the modern short story, everything should lead up to one “bingo moment” for the main character.
This means that the story should be organized so that everything goes toward the critical moment or away from it. Sometimes we get to the “bingo moment” and stop. One perfect example: Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” where the action consists of the townspeople making their way to the eccentric, now-deceased Emily’s house, revealing bits about her background along the way, all the time moving toward the “bingo moment” when they discover one of her iron gray hairs on the pillow where she must have been sleeping next to the decomposed remains of the lover lying next to her. The sight of the hair explains everything we have learned while the townspeople were walking toward the house — Emily’s purchase of rat poison years back, the terrible smell around the house soon after the murder, and so on. Every detail now makes sense as something that leads up to critical moment. Nothing is extraneous. We see the hair. Bingo! The story ends.
“A Rose for Emily” was published nearly a century ago and remains a powerful classic.
This is not to say that the story should always end at that moment of revelation. Depending on the subject matter, the story might require a bit more summing up. But not too much. The sooner it ends after the bingo moment, the more power it retains.
In addition, the “bingo moment” should be in the present time of the story, not in a flashback. In the title story of Lee Smith’s collection, “Me and My Baby View the Eclipse,” an otherwise happily-married housewife and mother, Sharon, has been having a clandestine affair with a local pharmacist, Raymond. Then, on a day when he comes to her house so they can watch the eclipse in her backyard and then go to her bed, they are discovered afterward by her six-year-old coming home from school. Raymond, nearly dressed, distracts the child, but the next day, when the girl asks who he was, Sharon says, “Oh, just nobody,”and suddenly realizes that is true. This is the bingo moment. The affair is over. She will always love Raymond, but she loves her family and her life more.
A lesser writer might have flashed back to the near-discovery of the affair. A lesser writer might have had her mulling over what happened yesterday and telling the reader the affair ended then. But it didn’t. It ended when her semi-aware daughter asked a question she never wanted asked. It ended in the present.
Writers sometimes like to scoff at the concept of a defining bingo moment in contemporary stories, but I would argue that, in the most powerful works, they’re usually there. One way to troubleshoot a story-in-progress that doesn’t quite work is to look at it scene by scene, ask if each element is leading up to the bingo moment, and remove or revise any element that isn’t. Then, make sure that the bingo moment is in the present of the story. This can be a valuable tool for making the work memorable, suggesting small changes that can add up to big differences in the effect the work has on the reader.