Structuring Your Short Story

Short stories are hard to write.  At least the good ones are.  

If you’re writing a short story in the hope of publication, know this: only an outstanding execution of an idea stands a chance.  It won’t be all about your pretty prose, which is always merely the ante-in.  The marketplace is scarce and narrowly defined, and the competition – most of whom write pretty prose, too – is significant.  

Which means you can’t ramble your way into a story (like some writers mistakenly believe you can do in a novel), you have to start at the heart of it, and with a clear vision for it.

Everyone, it seems, dabbles in short stories from time to time.

Which is curious, actually, because after years of mucking around in this pond wearing the waders of a story analyst, I’ve come to the conclusion that more people write short stories than there are non-writers who actually read them.

To say that one writes a short story as a masturbatory exercise is not inaccurate.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Half the novels we write are born of self-indulgent impulses, as well. 

So by all means, enjoy yourself.

Perhaps that’s what writing fiction is all about in the first place.

Short stories are just as often a means toward an end – the evolution of the storyteller – as they are an end unto themselves. 

It’s therapy.  It’s a statement.  It’s a snapshot to a world view.

It’s practice for something bigger down the road.

It’s when it’s not any of those things – if the goal is simply to sell it to Ellery Queen – that short story writing gets really tricky.

Chew on that, and be honest with yourself as you answer this question: why am I writing a short story?  If the answer is, because I don’t think I’m ready to write a novel, then welcome to the crowded short story growth curve.

With short stories it’s kinda like masturbating with an oven mitt and a timer.  The only folks who tune into that channel are probably doing it, too.

If you want to move from self-diddling dabbler to published short story pro, you need to understand a few things about the craft, much of which is congruent with the conventional wisdom of the novelist. 

Especially structure

Even though it may seem to be quite different than that of a novel.

Here’s the newsflash: it isn’t. 

Bottom line: short story structure is merely a microcosm – the nature and extent of which becomes the elusive holy grail of a variable – of novelistic structure.

Short story structure just seems different to the uneducated eye.  It comes off as simplicity on the other side of complexity… which is business school rhetoric for: there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

Case in point: a third grader splashes some paint onto a canvas and smears it around with his fingers.  It ends up hanging in the hall next to the gym.  But when a gallery-displayed, art school grad, accolades-soaked artist does the same thing – he splashes paint from one hand while holding a tumbler full of scotch in the other – it’s on display at a trendy resort gallery and can be had for six grand.

Why?  Because the artist, either before or soon after he started, knew what he was going for.  The kid was just messing around.

Another thing you need to know, and this is the Great Liberating Secret for short story writers who are frustrated with their upside: if you can bring the sensibility of a novelist to the craft – if your story becomes a gift to the reader – you’ll find yourself heading in the right direction.

Until this happens, it’s all just self-gratification.

With short stories, the backstory matters. 

Unspoken layers of character and plot usually play a critical role in making the short story narrative work .  Great short stories allow readers to fill in blanks that, in a novel, would warrant an entire chapter. 

The reader gets to jump in and make the story their own, to live it vicariously.  And, to get it over with on a bus ride to work.

Short stories are like a job interview versus a career, a first date versus a marriage, a sample handed out at Costco versus a wonderful multi-course dinner at a fine restaurant.  Or even breakfast at IHOP.

You’ve got to make that thin slice of time, that single bite, count.

And while short stories share many of the dramatic principles that drive novels and screenplays, the box into which you pour a short story has walls made of sandwich wrap rather than the industrial-strength cardboard parameters that apply to longer forms of fiction.

In a short story you are free to test and stretch those parameters.  But never to puncture them.

Great Short Stories Are Mission-Driven

The first question you need to ask yourself (other than the one above) is this: what kind of story am I writing?

Is it a plot-driven scenario with an outcome?  A mystery to be solved?  Is it a slice of life?  A compelling vignette?  A word-picture that describes a place or time?  A character sketch?  A memory?  An essay about what you believe happened or think is true?

The nature of your story, from among that short list and other flavors, drives its ultimate structure.  Because the structure for each is different in execution.

Not different in available options – there are only a few of those on the table for writers of fiction, no matter what the vehicle – but different in terms of what you do with them.

Here’s an example. 

I recently received a partial manuscript for analysis.  It consisted of nine “chapters,” all of which were narrated by the same voice, the protagonist.  But none of them really had a dramatic plot, and therefore no tension.  No question being asked. 

They were all word pictures, snapshots from her memory.  A description of a garden.  A recollection of the day a relative died.  The day her brother was injured.  A slice of experience from a different place and time.

Technically they were short stories – mainly because they were short – and they were well written in terms of style and voice.  But these weren’t the kind of stories that can really expect to be published, because there was no discernable point to them. 

That’s the point here – your story needs to have one.

Which brings us to the essential essence of short story writing: a writer needs to fully understand, grasp and declare the story’s mission.  Its dramatic mission.  Its true purpose and intention. 

You need to be in command of the nature of the story’s gift to the reader. 

That gift comes in the form of some sort of satisfaction, be it experiential (what it was like), emotional (what it felt like), intellectual (the answer to a question poised), or thematic (the lesson learned).

Be clear: reader satisfaction doesn’t come from taking in all your wonderful sentences.  It comes from the collective outcome of them.

Once you know this mission– and this is in common with writing novels and screenplays – your course moving forward is a given.  Your job is to optimize that mission through the way you manipulate the tools of fiction.

And if you don’t know, not matter how awesome your voice, the story doesn’t stand a chance.

Lifting a Microcosm of Traditional Structure

If you are writing a traditional plot-driven story, then it needs to convey the same four parts, or narrative phases, as does a novel: a set-up… followed by a plot point that introduces the primary conflict and thus the nature of the hero’s intentions and goals, as well as stakes… a response to that twist… a shift at the mid-point… followed by some sort of proactive attack by the hero… a final plot point… and then the resolution of the story.

Same as with novels.  Except… in a short story, you can deliver these by implication, or with a single sentence or paragraph.  What might require an  entire sequence of scenes in a novel can be done with a few words in a short story.  Or even without any words at all, simply by implication.

Here’s an example.  This is the entire Part 1 set-up of a short story, rendered in one opening sentence.

On the day before Scott was supposed to leave for college to pursue his childhood ambition of becoming a doctor, his father died and left him a multi-million dollar corporation to run.

That’s a set-up and the first plot point, delivered in 32 words.

Because the writer of this story should know precisely what the story will become, and how he’ll pull it off effectively, he can then go straight at the slice of dramatic tension that will become the story’s heart and soul.

Once a story has opened, the writer faces two choices.

Actually it’s a choice they should make before the story opens, but from a reader point of view, it could go either way.

First, the writer can develop a strategy that delivers each of the essential four story parts and three major milestones, deciding how much narrative airtime is warranted for each element to fit into the space constraints of the story’s target destination (a magazine, an anthology, a contest or a classroom exercise).

In that case, the writer is, in essence, shrinking the structural paradigm into the smaller box of the story, stretching the sides as necessary and implying that which won’t fit.

It’s all there, either shown, stated or implied.  Beginning… middle… end.

Or… the writer can cut deep into the paradigm and carve out a piece of that bigger- picture narrative, and weave a story around that moment, person or occurrence.  The outcome, in this case, focuses on a moment, rather than the bigger picture of a larger story.

The story can be about what would otherwise be a first plot point

Or a response to one.  Or a shift from the middle of an unfolding sequence of events.  Or an attack on a problem.  Or a final outcome based on how the hero perceives all that has come before.

Notice, however, but none of these is simply about how the flowers looked on the day of the father’s funeral.  That’s not a story, that’s an essay.

Example: using the opening sentence in the example above, you could make your story about the hero’s father’s funeral.  What came before and after could remain implied, while the narrative delves deep into the inner conflict of the student facing the choice of going to college or diving head-first into the family business.

A short story needs a hero as much as a novel does.  And flowers do not make for good heroes.  It’s never about the flowers.

The mission of such a story: to explore what it would feel like to have your life’s plan taken away in favor of someone else’s intentions for you.

In the first case – the unfolding future of our hero – the gift to the reader is a drama to which we can relate.  Something with an outcome.  It must unfold over time, and must use strategic compression of necessary structural elements to take us to the payoff, which is either an affirmation or an indictment of his father’s imposed will.

In the second case – a moment in time at the funeral – the gift to the reader is a vicarious trip into the dark dilemma of this character, wherein we feel the weight of this choice to our very core, and regardless of the ending (which in this case will be implied or simply never dealt with), come away from the reading experience having lived a vicarious moment that makes us appreciate our own journey.

Same story, same set-up, but two ensuing takes on a narrative strategy.  In either case, for a short story.

You couldn’t make this choice unless you fully understand the difference between these two strategies, and the nature of the limitations of the box into which you must pour and arrange your dramatic conceit.

The six core competencies remain your pilot light.

This is true whether your story is short or long.  Whether you compress them into the palm of your storytelling hand in a short story or string them across a landscape of decades in a novel, the essence remains the same.

It becomes a matter of emphasis, choosing between concept and plot versus character and theme.  And doing so in a way that the non-chosen realm remains in the picture through the subtlety of your art.

For your consideration… please take note of the release of my new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published.”


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to Structuring Your Short Story

  1. Excellent point about there being more short story writers than readers!

    I’ve seen writing short stories as a way to practice writing voice and scene construction while learning structure (this is my current course of action).

    I’ve also thought that getting published in Ellery Queen or Analog would be validation that I’ve got some talent, and I’m not wasting my time. I’ve also heard (Stephen King’s writing book?) that getting short stories published can help land an agent. Any truth to this?

  2. Can’t wait to read this, thanks Larry.

  3. Jim

    Great post. I love the way you tell it like it is.

    “And flowers do not make for good heroes.”

    The way I see it, it’s the Big Top Circus tent shrunk down to the size of a two man camping tent.

  4. Excellent. This lets us novelists use the same Craft to do the short story, too.

    One suggestion to novelists (which I am doing): You’ve got an interesting third-level character or an event or whatever in your novel which, while writing your novel, you went into for a while before you discovered the detailing of what happened wasn’t necessary to the novel itself. The results might have been vital, but the how wasn’t.

    Example: In the novel, the hero has to deliver the vaccine to the City of Glen. The adventure/story of how the researchers developed the vaccine probably isn’t needed to forward the novel’s story.

    However, you created an interesting set of characters and scenarios about this development before you realized it wasn’t needed.

    Write your own fan-fiction as a short story and leave it out of the novel. Give it away as a free Kindle app or whatever (ensure you link to your novel).

    Now you have the best of both worlds. The Craft works on the novel and the short story. The short story enables you to indulge in the byways you needed to leave out in your novel. And, it’s excellent publicity — if you don’t give away “secrets” of the actual novel.

  5. @Sean — that’s a good question about short stories impressing agents. Anything that can set you apart from the rank and file is a good thing, including having published a short story or two. Absolutely. It isn’t what agents are nessessarily looking for, per se, but it is a feather in your writing cap. Contest placements, too. Or even a glowing rejection letter (I know, a contradiction in terms, but sometimes an editor will gush as they turn you down)… it’s all ammunition for you when you sit down with an agent. L.

  6. Dianne

    My comment is off-topic, but thank you for recommending Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I thought it was incredible.

  7. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
    As someone who writes and is published in flash fiction (Definition: six words up to 3000 words, depending on publisher), I can say that short stories of any length have a beginning, middle and end. Example:
    “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.”
    All stories turn on a structure, even six word stories by famous novelists.
    Obviously, the longer the story, the more room you have to get across your message, but the reader wants tension, emotion, resolution, regardless of length. A story that leaves you saying “so what?” at the end IS an essay, not a story.
    Saving the outtakes from your novel allows you to keep the darlings without junking up your manuscript (I do that too, Bruce).
    Thanks for this post. As usual, the masses are more educated today than they were yesterday.
    Cheers, Kelly

  8. Hey Larry–

    First of all, let me thank you for the post! I needed to write a short story for a group I’m part of so it’s been very helpful.

    I think there are several reasons to write stories. I think they make a good learning ground, because frustration is kept to a minimum–if you mess up, you haven’t written pages and pages that go to waste. You can start over easily.

    Another thing–in the past, I think short stories were a part of becoming a novelist. You got yourself published in magazines, and in turn you took those publishing credits to agents so that you could begin to market your novel.

  9. I read your blog with intense interest. I am writing action/adventure novellas of ~ 11,000 wds targeted for downloads for ereaders. I’ve written ten so far. Perhaps it is a phantom market, however, as NO ONE has come to Smashwords to buy them. The ‘masterbation’ analogy looms menacingly. My one remaining hope is that eight of these are in a series that might make a decent sized compendium of ~ 90,000 wds. I am currently trolling agents with this idea but no ‘bites’ yet.

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  11. Mike Lawrence

    Right, so which do editors prefer, Structure Lite or a slice of Structure Cake? Where’s the money?

    Oh, wait, I’m writing for the sake of art. Really.

    (pssst – but, seriously, which one pays?)

    At the tender age of 44, he finally wrote his novel, dedicating a year of his life living in a 10 ft. trailer and surviving on baloney and crackers. Heart swelling, he deposited the manuscript in the mail. Walking home, he realized the best story he’d ever written was when he was 14.

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