Wednesday, December 5

Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
I have a problem. For the past two years or so, every time I set out to write a short story—something under 5,000 words—I fail miserably. It grows and grows and grows until I'm writing a 20,000 word novella!

And there's nothing wrong with that.

It used to be it was hard to sell novellas but the form is experiencing a resurgence. It appears that as long as buyers are informed about the length of a story, they don't mind variety. (See: Ian McEwan Believes The Novella Is The Perfect Form Of Prose Fiction)

But I digress. As I say, there isn't anything wrong with writing novellas, but I've grown increasingly anxious. Every time I begin a short story it morphs into a novella. It has gotten to the point that—even if only for the novelty of it!—I would like to write a short story.

The upshot is that I've researched various structures that could be used for short stories because I think my problem is that I'm trying to use the structure of a novel for a short story. Not good.

Here's what I found.

The Hero's Journey: The Structure For A Novel

So that we'll have something to contrast the various short story structures with, here's the classic monomyth structure in visual form. This comes by way of the wonderfully creative folks at TED:

Short Story Structure 1: A Character, In A Situation, With A Problem ...

1. A character,
2. in a situation,
3. with a problem,
4. who tries repeatedly to solve the problem,
5. but fails, usually making the problem worse.
6. At the climax of the story the hero makes a final attempt which may succeed or fail.
7. The result of the hero's final attempt is validated in a way that makes it clear what we saw was the final result.
I've paraphrased it, but that's from Philip Brewer's post, Story Structure in Short Stories. Originally it comes from Algis Budrys.

This structure seems better suited to the brevity of a short story, but let's keep looking.

Short Story Structure 2: Set-up, Response, Attack, Resolution

This short story structure comes to us by way of Larry Brooks's article: The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story. He writes:
"Like life, our stories always reside somewhere along that same continuum of set-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution."
1. Setup
2. Shift
3. Response
4. Shift (mid-point)
5. Attack
6. Shift
7. Resolution

Sarah A Hoyt: The Structure Of A Short Story

This wonderfully detailed short story structure comes from Sarah A. Hoyt's article, The Structure of A Short Story, and is, I'm afraid, a case of me saving the best till last. Well, almost last.

(All quotations are from Sarah's article.)
1. First line or two
"[I]ntroduce the most startling or grabby thing about your characters/setting/situation."

2. Rest of the first paragraph
"[L]ay out character/setting/ and most of all problem.  You might want to lead with problem as that brings out the most interesting things about your idea.  (If your idea isn’t interesting, WHY are you writing it?)"

3. Next few pages (From the first paragraph up to the 25% mark)
"Develop the present situation which your character is caught.  This situation is usually not the main problem, and you should have at least one try/fail before getting character out of the PRESENT situation.  About 1/4 of the way through the story, have the character realize what the REAL problem is."

4. From the 25% point to the mid-point
"Initiate try/fails to solve the main problem."

5. Mid-point
"Around middle of the story have character realize he was going about obtaining goal the wrong way or that his/her assumptions were oh, soooo wrong."

6. 62% (between the mid-point and the 3/4 mark)
"Activate cunning plan.  (This normally doesn’t involve a turnip, on account of not being a Black Adder story.)"

7. 75% mark
"Try fail sequences set up about 3/4 through the story."

8. 88% mark
"Black moment about 1/8th from the end."

9. 95% to 100%
"[R]esolution and usually not much of what my husband calls a cigarette moment, because it’s a short."
I especially love Sarah's attention to detail in the first paragraph, breaking it into two. Let's face it, folks are probably going to decide whether they'll read your story based on the first few lines.

For Kicks And Giggles: A Possible Short Story Structure

I've tried to condense the hero's journey into something manageable for a short story and (as you'll be able to tell) I've borrowed liberally.

1. Set-up/Status quo/Ordinary World

The hero has a well-defined need but there is something specific keeping her from meeting this need. (Another way of saying this is, "The hero has a well-defined goal, but there is something specific keeping her from acquiring what she seeks.)

2. Call to adventure/Inciting incident

Something (perhaps something shocking) happens to break the status quo.

3. Hero's Response

The hero might vacillate for a short time while she weighs what accepting the call to adventure will mean for her (good opportunity for a sequel), but she ultimately accepts the call and enters a new, strange, intensely unfamiliar situation/world.

4. Trial and Error

The hero tries to attain her goal, to meet the need that we read about at the beginning of the story. She fails. Perhaps she fails spectacularly and humorously. Even though she failed, she succeeds at something. Perhaps she gains an ally because, even though she fails, she just won't give up.

Hero looks back. Thinks about going back to the status quo, what that would mean.

5. Mid-point/Point of no return (50%)

Hero tries to defeat the thing that is preventing her from getting what she needs.

Hero Succeeds: If hero succeeds then there has to be a twist. The person/thing they thought was the Big Bad really isn't. The real Big Bad is revealed.

Hero Fails: Stakes are raised. Perhaps she loses her allies, perhaps she's injured. She fought impressively but, because she still has a weakness, her enemy either got away or beat her.

Either way, the mid-point is a point-of-no return. Because of what happens in this scene the hero no longer has the option of going back to the ordinary world. Also, often, the hero makes the problem (overcoming the obstacles to achieving her goal) worse in an unexpected way.

Note: I mention the hero's weakness, above. Her weakness could be anything, but it's nice if it can be related to whatever it is INTERNALLY that keeps her from achieving her goal.

6. Setback

Our hero has failed (see (5)). She tries to go back to the status quo but realizes that's not possible. Time for reflection and perhaps a pep-talk. Or perhaps she hits bottom and starts fighting everything in sight and the experience revives her. (It could happen! ;)

7. Acceptance

Hero accepts her fate and trains, or otherwise works on removing what is keeping her from reaching her goal. Her weakness (usually an internal thing; e.g., a bad attitude) is diminishing. She is getting control over it.

Make sure your readers know 'the plan', how the hero is going to defeat what is preventing her from reaching her goal. If there is one crucial element of the plan it helps. For instance, the presence of her mentor.

8. All is lost (75%)

The one thing that absolutely can't fail for the plan to work does fail. All hope is lost. The hero will never be able to ....  You get the idea. I think the movie The Firm, with Tom Cruise, did this brilliantly.

But, wait, all hope is not lost. It's an incredible long-shot. It's insane, really, to even consider it, especially given that the hero failed at the midpoint. But maybe, just maybe, if the hero does [insert deed], there's a chance the plan can still work.

9. Final Attack 

It is essential that the hero act immediately. It is now much harder for the hero to succeed than it was at the mid-point and the stakes are much higher.

Something spectacularly improbable yet plausible, happens and the hero executes the plan. At the end of this scene she will triumph over whatever was keeping her from attaining her goal. She has worked through the weakness that caused her to fail at the mid-point.

10. Wrap-up

Have the hero say goodbye to her allies and go back to the ordinary world. Show how her ordinary world has been transformed because of her journey (because your hero is, in some ways, a different person).

In my outline I have it that the hero was successful, but they might not be. Also, the hero might not  willingly go back to the ordinary world, perhaps she returns for the sake of someone she left behind, or perhaps she's chased back.

Final Thoughts

Looking over the story structure I just detailed I wonder if a person could use it to write a short story, say one of 1,000 words. Perhaps it would be more suited to a story of 5,000 words (or so). But, who knows? Perhaps I'll try it tonight as a challenge.

I hope you've gotten something from this article, even if it has only highlighted the problem, how difficult it is to squeeze all that story goodness into the tiny vessel of a short story.

If any of you would like to share your short story structures I would LOVE to see them.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I want to recommend "Story Structure: The Key to Successful Fiction" by William Bernhardt. From the blurb: "Story structure is one of the most important concepts for a writer to understand—and ironically, one of the least frequently taught. In this book, New York Times-bestselling author William Bernhardt explains the elements that make stories work, using examples spanning from Gilgamesh to The Hunger Games."

Other articles you might like:

- Before You Start Writing Test Your Characters: Are They Strong Enough?
- Dean Wesley Smith's Advice To Indie Authors For 2013: How To Sell Fiction
- Robert Sawyer Says: Don't Worry About What's Popular, Write What You Love

Photo credit: "Angels in fury" by Jsome1 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Karen, thank you for all these possible structures. I've been pretty successful with short story writing - not following any particular structure - but being careful to start with a bang, keep to only at most 4 characters, make every word count and move the story along and use a lot of sparkling dialogue. That said, I also write a lot of flash fiction, mainly to 400-word limit. This has sharpened up my short stories no end. Teaches me to eliminate anything that doesn't really have to stay in my story.
    This may not be very helpful. I also then like to see if I can add to a short story and end up with a novella. Sometimes can, sometimes can't.


    1. That's a great idea, keeping it down to 4 characters. Thanks for the tip.

      You're one of those gifted people who can write flash fiction! How I envy you. One of my Google+ friends posted a complete story that consisted of 64 words. I was in awe.

      Thanks for your comment! :)

    2. 64 words!
      Will this gifted person let you post it?

    3. I remember reading the story, but now I can't remember who wrote it! lol What can I say? I've got a memory like a sieve. Sorry Julien! :(

  2. Came back to say - do you know you have Captcha Codes turned on? I don't usually comment when they turn up, but I'd written such a long comment I didn't want to waste it. You might find you get more comments if you remove these horrible things. D

    1. (Sigh) Yes, I've had complaints about Captcha Codes, but I get a *lot* of spam when I turn it off. But, you're right. I've turned Captcha off and will keep it off until the end of December. Perhaps it is preventing folks from commenting and I'd hate that, because I do love chatting with my readers. :-)

  3. A great post. I love reading about story structures, and I believe they offer tremendous comfort, like the ratty blankets we all chewed on as babies. A post like this is great to read, and great to return to when you're stuck. Thanks a lot!

    1. Thanks csoffer! Ah yes, Linus and his blanket. I'm glad you got something from it. Cheers!

  4. Good tips, but, I believe, short stories can't be fit in with any structure. The only thing I do before starting a short story is to start with the end. Then I create the plot to reach at that end. For instance, here is a story I wrote few months back.
    Resignation was the main theme in my mind... I wanted to write a story on how, sometimes, you don't realize that relations do come to end. There is no way you can run from this final resignation. The rest of story and characterization was all I created based on this final theme.

    1. Thanks Fizza. Starting with the end is a good tip. Thanks for your comment :)

  5. Thanks, Karen, for listing the different types of structures. I normally write long too (short for me is usually novella length of 50K words) but I want to challenge myself to write short this year - I have a goal to write at least 3 short stories this year.

    There are some great tips here in the comments, too, so thank you to everyone!

    1. It's always nice to hear from another person who write long! I'm challenging myself to write short as well. I want to write at least one 1,000 word story before the year is out.

      Yes, thanks! I learn a lot for from folks who, very kindly, take the time to comment. :)

  6. I read somewhere a while ago that the structure of a literary short was Scene - Exposition - Scene - Flashback - Scene - Epiphany. Which, being as that's a literary form and I write specfic and I'm contrary, I decided to see if I could use it to write spec...and wound up with something literary.

    I used to write a short story a week before I went back to school for my MFA and was required to focus on novel-length, and it decided to be Epic Fantasy and so is Very Long. When I was doing that, I'd always start as close to the end as possible--cover as little time as possible. For me, it's covering a lot of time that makes a story long, so snipping that makes it shorter. Usually I just had one or two characters with a problem between them.

    And I miss writing short!


    1. "Which, being as that's a literary form and I write specfic and I'm contrary, I decided to see if I could use it to write spec...and wound up with something literary."

      Love it! And thanks for that structure. Interesting. I'm going to try that out.

      Epic fantasy! Wow, _that's_ ambitious!

      Thanks for your comment Samantha! I love it when I learn new things. :)

  7. Hi Karen,

    Thank you for sharing these strutures. I'm moving over to writing my first fiction short story and I'm going to be coming back to this excellent post.

    1. Thanks Hiten! Glad you got something from it. :)

  8. Karen thanks for this post. For me I have been able to write a short story but I have had more of an issue crafting a novella. The most I have written for my short stories are about 4,000 words and I am working on expanding on my writing so I can have a successful novella which is the one I am currently working on now.

    1. Hi Sylvia, thanks for your comment!

      A while ago I had the devil of a time writing a short story, anything under 4,000 words eluded me. After reading a few articles about writing short fiction and after taking a few stabs at Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction challenge, I licked it. I still do have a problem writing short form--my 3,000 word stories keep trying to become first chapters--but ... My point is that if you continue reading about writing novellas and keep trying to write them, you'll do it. All the best.

  9. When it comes to using the Hero's Journey in short fiction, it seems that a lot of stories I analyze are structured around only part of it, with the rest of the steps implied.

    For example, a common thing to do is form the plot around the first three steps: protagonist is faced with a challenge, rejects it, and then the climax is the acceptance of the challenge. The story ends with the implication that the protagonist is about to embark on a great journey.

    And then some stories are centered around the "dark night of the soul" stage, with the previous steps implied through flashbacks or conversation or whatever. The climax of this would then be the protagonist making the "leap of faith."

    Ultimately, though, I think of a story as a character struggling to reach a goal. When I write, I never consciously think of structure.

    One more thing...

    A structure I see sometimes in stories is a basically a variation of the try-fail cycle: the protagonist has to reach something (say a thief trying to escape with jewels), and the only way to do so is by overcoming a series of barriers. He succeeds over each barrier, but those successes come with great cost, usually in the form of raised stakes or new complications or whatever.

    1. Thank you! Excellent advice. Thanks for taking the time to comment. :)

  10. Hi Karen! Great post--thanks so much! My usual--and most comfortable--genre is poetry, and short poems, at that, and I have wanted to try fleshing the stories out more into shorts. The structure was giving me trouble though. I really appreciate your post! :)

    1. Thanks Tabitha, glad it was of some help! I'd love to read one of your short stories. :-)

  11. Karen,

    I can relate to the problem of writing short. I had the same problem until I put my hand into flash fiction. I think the key to writing short is to minimize description, focus on the problem of a single character or conflict between two characters, and keep it all within a scene or two. I managed to crank out a few shorts thanks to some writing prompts by MJ Bush on Google+. Most of those results ended up on Wattpad.

    1. That's awesome, Sean! MJ Bush's prompts are beautiful and evocative.

      I, too, had a bit of a breakthrough since I wrote this article and the cure was exactly the same: just dive in and write flash fiction. Hmmm, that would make a good topic for a blog post!

  12. Thanks Karen. Your post is helpful for all. All the best.


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.