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.

{ 19 comments }

J. Dane Tyler May 24, 2010 at 4:13 am

Fantastic, Larry. This is exactly what I hoped for; a concise and excellent explanation of how a short story can be explored with the 4-part story structure background frame, and the Six Core Competencies to flesh out the framework.

Thank you for another amazing piece.

Matt May 24, 2010 at 4:15 am

It’s interesting that short stories are so often seen as a way in for novelists, and yet the discipline they require can be very different.

I’ve only been seriously wrestling with the form for a short while, and in order to do that I’ve been looking at a lot of published stories. Their similarity to novels is obvious, but I have been interested in parallels with poetry and drama too.

Like a play, as you say, a short story often conjures the ‘off-stage’ world as a key element, perhaps the most important element, driving the action. Like a poem, a short story’s form is often foregrounded, and its meaning is often oblique.

Martin Greaney May 24, 2010 at 6:26 am

Thanks for another inspiring post. Like Matt, I’ve often seen short stories as a ‘way in’, may be practice for the ‘real’ thing – the novel. But I so enjoy writing shorts; now I understand that it’s a different beast, I can quite happily carry on with the shorts, and not feel obliged to be looking towards the longer work.

jennifer blanchard May 24, 2010 at 8:28 am

This has been a question on my mind for a long time, so thank you for answering it for me! I have so many short story ideas written down, but most will never be expanded on. I have one short story that I’ve been convinced is “almost done.” But after reading this, I realize I still have a lot of work to do. :-)

Deanna Schrayer May 24, 2010 at 11:11 am

Very well said Larry. I may have mentioned before that I didn’t start writing fiction at all until I joined the #fridayflash group (on Twitter) last fall. The gist of it is [those of us in the group] post a flash piece each Friday. So it was that I began writing fiction, and had not given the first thought, at that point, to writing a novel. Though far from perfect, I’m seeing a vast improvement in my stories from when I began, largely due to the kind critique of other members of the group. I suppose, in a sense, this makes me “backwards”, for I’ve grown to put my knowledge towards shorts, rather than towards novel-length stories, and am not having a difficult time expanding on those stories.

One of the most entertaining, and eductational, shorts I’ve ever read is “Three Skeleton Key”, by George G. Toudouze, a classic I discovered in an old literature schoolbook I picked up at a yard sale. The whole textbook is chock full of classics that offer a plethora of learning experience. If anyone is looking to learn how a short can work so well, I highly recommend “Three Skeleton Key”.

Thanks Larry for another intelligent post!

Deanna Schrayer May 24, 2010 at 11:12 am

Oops – I should have said “…am NOW having a difficult time expanding on those stories”, not “…am NOT having a difficult time…”

Typing too fast. :)

Curtis May 24, 2010 at 11:31 am

Larry, thanks for doing the short story. You have distilled the essence of most, if not all of your process into this one piece. I appreciate it.

The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling: concept, character, theme, scene execution and writing voice.

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

set-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution.

Bruce H. Johnson May 24, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Shorts are really tough jobs. If nothing else: “I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter,” Blaise Pascal.

Try some Flash fiction sometime, too. That’s less than 500 words.

Linda Yezak May 25, 2010 at 8:45 am

My first short story bombed, and now I know why. Thanks for the lesson. Maybe my next will be better!

Linda

Tony McFadden May 27, 2010 at 4:06 am

The more I write, the better I get (I hope).

The more I read here, the better I get at being better.

Thank you for another great post.

Daniel Strachan August 21, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Larry:
What a find!!..It was well delivered and lots of fun. I’ve been searching for an article that would explain the differences between writing a truly great short story versus writing a truly great novel. This find was a masterpiece. Thank you.

Tenille November 8, 2010 at 5:59 am

I thought about writing a long comment about why and how much this helps me; but in the end it all come down to a massive THANKYOU.

yo yo gabba March 19, 2012 at 4:55 pm

hey y’all. i was a meandering on threw the world wide web and happened across this here page and by golly wow! it shur nuf did tought me some thing down wight terific! thanks y’all

Patricia L Morris June 1, 2012 at 7:50 am

I am on page 243 of Story Engineering. I have been using the book to re-write a short story in order to practice the concepts in the book. I came to realize what you wrote- the theme needs to lead.
Thanks your your analysis.
Your pantsing follower,
Patricia

Jody April 14, 2013 at 6:19 am

Well said.

Joel D Canfield April 14, 2013 at 12:23 pm

From a songwriter’s perspective, this counterintuitive thinking makes perfect sense. Writing an instrumental is much harder than writing a song with words, because the words carry so much of the weight which has to be carried by music alone in an instrumental.

Thanks for NOT sugar-coating how hard it is to define exactly what goes into a short story, and what doesn’t.

Jan Rydzon April 14, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I want to write short stories for WD and other competitions, but find them very difficult to pull off. Now I understand why.
Thanks,
Jan

Leila Wilson April 15, 2013 at 12:50 pm

This is clear and extremely helpful article Larry so thanks so much. It’s the best advice on short story writing I have ever read.

Theresa Milstein April 18, 2013 at 4:48 am

I agree that sometimes there’s only enough space for implication. I often enjoy writing short stories when I’m in between longer projects or I need a break from a longer project. Your parenting analogy makes sense to me. When I write shorter pieces, they’re not necessarily easier–they push me more.

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