The Structure Of A Short Story
I've been thinking about short stories lately; specifically, about how to structure them. I'd like to write an article that makes it easier for a new writer to create a decent short story right off the bat, the kind of article that might have helped accelerate my learning curve when I was starting out.
(Grin) I guess everyone's gotta have a goal! We'll see how this goes.
A Caveat: Use what works for you
Let me digress for a moment. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't many fine articles out there written by folks much more capable than myself. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut's article How to write with style. But everyone is unique, everyone has a different perspective. Perhaps you and I will be similar enough that my take on things will strike a cord with you. If so, great!
I'm not saying this structure, or any structure, is for everyone. If you like it and it works for you, great! If it doesn't, that's fine. (smile) Use what works for you.
I've been working on a post on short story structure for the past few days but it keeps growing and, today, I realized I'm going to have to do this in parts. In this post I want to talk about what we need to bring to the table before we start building the structure of our story, before we start talking about hooks and pinches, midpoints and resolutions.
In the next post in this series I'll discuss how to condense the essential ideas in your short story down so they can be expressed in one, or a few, lines. The post after that we'll start talking about Dan Wells 7-Point system for short stories.
Another caveat: If you have an idea and it's bursting to get out, write it! You don't need me, or anyone, to tell you how to express your creativity. This structure is mainly for folks who have an idea curled at the back of their minds like a shy kitten. They know it's there, they know it wants to come out and play, but they can't quite coax it from its hiding spot.
Preparing To Write A Short Story
Before we start talking about story structure (hooks, turning points, pinches, resolutions, and so on) there are a few things we should decide on. Things such as:
1. The basic idea your story is about
What is the setting?
Time: Where are we in time? Is it the present? The past? The future?
Place: What geographic location are you going to use? (New York? LA? Toronto? Etc) Are you going to create your world or use this one?
Mood/Atmosphere: What feeling do you want to create at the beginning? Bright and cheerful? Dark and frightening? Is this going to change by the end? (See: Short Story Elements)
Social milieu: How does the social milieu shape your character's values? What cultures are you going to include? (Setting, Wikipedia)
What is the major conflict?
There are various kinds of conflicts:
- person against person,
- person against society,
- person against nature and
- person against self.
The protagonist often has both an internal and external conflict, so person against person (the antagonist) and person against self (the internal struggle) are the most common forms of conflict found in stories, at least genre stories which are the kind I am focusing on. (See: Conflict, Wikipedia)
For instance, in The Firm, Mitch McDeere has the outer goal of becoming a wealthy lawyer and the inner goal of shedding the negative emotions he has concerning his childhood (well, at first, he just wants to run away and ignore them). His external goal changes throughout the movie, as does how he approaches his inner goal. The obstacles/opposition to these goals creates conflict.
You don't have to have an inner conflict and in a short story you might find it too much to fit in, especially if you're a new writer.
A good strong external conflict (external goal + opposition) is an absolute must. It is the engine that will drive your story forward.
2. List your characters
This is a short story so you probably want to keep the number of characters to the bare minimum you need to tell the story.
You'll have a protagonist, an antagonist and one or both of them might have a helper. Also, the protagonist might have a mentor and there might be some sort of shady character trying to keep the protagonist from leaving the status quo/ordinary world.
Keep in mind that the same character could fill more than one role. For instance, the antagonist could corrupt the mentor and the mentor could act as the shadow-y character keeping the antagonist from crossing the threshold into the special world, the land of adventure. (See: Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction)
I love character sheets! I gave this link in the article, below (Before You Start Writing ...) but I'll give it here as well: Character Brainstorming Worksheet. That's, hands down, the best character sheet I've seen in a long time!
Update (Dec 14, 2012): Thanks to Sam Hunt over at Dark-Fantasy Writers I just learnt about Seventh Sanctum. They have a great character generator over there, best I've seen. Fun to play around with (well, if you're a geek like me).
Test Your Characters
Martina Boone came up with a brilliant idea: Test your characters before you write them into your story to make sure they're strong enough. If this is something you'd like to read about I'll direct you here: Before You Start Writing Test Your Characters: Are They Strong Enough?
3. Who is your point of view (POV) character?
If you're going to write in third person omniscient or third person objective then you don't have to choose just one, but chances are you won't be writing from the these points of view. Usually your protagonist will be your POV character.
That said, there are notable exceptions. For instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlocke Holmes stories from the point of view of Watson but Sherlock Holmes was his protagonist.
Sometimes you may want to have two POV characters. For instance, often in romance stories one POV character is the girl the other the guy and the POV shifts between chapters. (Or girl/girl or guy/guy depending on the story you're writing.) If you're a new writer, or you want to write a story under 2,000 words, I'd suggest you pick just one.
4. Are you going to write in first, second or third person?
I'm not going to talk about narrative points of view. Wikipedia has a wonderful write up about each one, with examples galore: Narrative mode. If you're at all fuzzy about what first person, second person, third person subjective, third person objective and third person omniscient are please do head on over to Wikipedia and brush up. I know I have to read the definitions again every few years!
Sometimes the narrative point of view you choose will be (in part) determined by the genre you're writing for. For instance, most urban fantasy is written in the first person (See: Urban Fantasy: Threat or Menace? - The Story Board Ep. 1). Second person is popular only in special areas, for instance recipes, songs, blog posts, and so on. If you are like the majority of authors (why do I feel like I've just given someone a challenge? lol) you'll likely end up choosing between first person and third person subjective (also called third person limited).
5. A description of your story
This is something I always do. I've never read anyone else say to do this, so use this at your own risk!
Eventually (we'll talk about this in the next post in this series) we'll go over writing a one liner, or tag-line for your story. But lets not worry about that yet. Right now I'd like to you to write out what your story is about, all those ideas that have been purcolating in your noggin as we've been doing all this preparation work.
Go and write it out. That's okay. I'll wait.
Okay. Your description might be 5 pages long or just a list of ideas (or you might have nothing at all), it's all good, but now you need to take what you've written and hone your story down to its essentials.
6. The one-liner/tag line
I'm going to break off here. Tomorrow I'll write about how to condense your story down to its essential elements and express them in one line.
Or at least that's the goal! See you next time.
Update: Here's a link to the next article in this series: The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version.
How about you? Do you use a story structure when you write? What is your process?
Other articles you might like:- Roleplaying Games And Writing, Does The One Help The Other?
- How To Write A Twitter Story
- Why Your Story Should Have A Theme
Photo credit: "Моя Мелочь:) | My Meloch:)" by eXage under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.