The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story

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by Larry Brooks on May 23, 2010

You think writing 100,000 words is tough?  That shaping them into a coherent and meaningful story is challenging?

Try writing 1000 words sometime.  Or 5,000.  With the same goal.

Try writing a short story.  

As paradoxical as it may seem, short stories are harder to wrap your head around than a novel.  And harder yet to successfully pull off.

For every famous short story writer out there, there are 100 famous novelists.  That’s no accident.

To help explain this – as much to myself as for those reading this – consider this analogy: we get about two decades to raise our children.  We have that long, give or take, to send them out into the world with a shot at success and happiness.

A lot has to happen.  Sometimes two decades isn’t enough.

Try doing it in six months.  Or even a year.

Writing a short story is like that. 

Everything necessary for a novel to succeed is asked of a short story, as well.

Six things, in fact, or what I call The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling: concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice.

Only the short story writer has to approach the task from a different perspective.  While those elements need to be there, they don’t always need to be on the page.

Conflict.  Stakes.  Need.  Journey.  Opposition.  Characterization.  Setting.  Arena.  Sub-text.  Voice.

They all need to be there. 

Even if they’re not.

Sometimes, for a short story to work, they need to implied.

To pull this off, the short story writer needs to be perhaps even better at one specific aspect of the storytelling craft than the novelist.

The short story writer needs to be mission-driven.  The writer’s intentions – which implies a clear understanding of why this story needs to be written – requires a clear, concise objective before it can work.

Not just for the plot, if there is a plot, but for the reading experience. 

Which translates into an even higher priority on theme in short stories than it does in novels.  Novels are long enough entities to allow theme to emerge.

In short stories, theme needs to drive.

The short story writer should know as much as possible about these issues – intentions and execution – ahead of time.  In fact, you need to know these things before you can write a successful draft.

Now – and this returns us to the eternal pantsing vs. planning debate – you certainly can write draft after draft of your story in search for those answers. 

But there is no debating, especially for short stories, that it won’t work until you do.

Once the mission of the story is clear to you, only then can you decide on the optimal structure for it. 

And for that, you can use the four-part structure for novels (set-up, response, attack, resolution, each part separated by specific plot points) to put a fence around your short story intentions.

I get asked this all the time:

Does the four part structure apply to short stories?

Answer: yes.  And no.   Or, sometimes. 

It’s your call.

Yes, you can create a four-part short story that is, in essence, a condensed version of the classic structural paradigm.

Or, you can hone in on any specific moment or segment of the four-part structure – such as, a single plot point element or a single scene from within any of the four contextually-defined parts – and have that become your architecture.

It’s like building a one room addition next to your house.  The end product might be intended to accommodate anything and everything that could go in inside the house, and when it’s done it needs to blend into the aesthetics and structural design of the bigger house.

Even if, in a picture or a drive-by, nobody gets to actually see the larger house.

When you do choose a sub-set of the larger story paradigm, the part you isolate should be written from an unspoken context of the entire architecture.

Which means, your character came from somewhere… something changes… they respond to that change… something else changes… they attack their problem or goal… something else changes yet again… and then things resolve.

Where you jump into that sequence is your choice as a short story writer.   One that the novelist doesn’t have.

A slice of life.  Or the whole pie.

You can, for example, write a short story about a moment that changes a character’s life.  But when you do, you imply – or at least very gently introduce – some essence of a preceding set-up (with stakes) and some notion of what happens afterwards.

You can write a character sketch or vignette of your hero, without ever giving them much to do.  But the context remains in play – who they were… who they are…  what that means in terms of stakes and needs and goals… who they might turn out to be.

It’s your storytelling goal that shapes and defines those structural decisions.  It’s what you want the reader to experience that dictates what goes on the page, and what remains between the lines as an implication. 

Which is why short stories are so damn hard to put into a box. 

Because the box comes in all sizes, shapes and colors, and can be made from virtually anything.

Just remember this: what goes into the box comes from a place outside the box… and will ultimately be withdrawn from the box.

Even if neither realm is part of your story. 

Like life, our stories always reside somewhere along that same continuum of set-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution.

As long as your story shows us a slice of that experience, up to and including the whole pie, its fate resides with your ability to make something huge and significant into something short and magnificent.

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