6/13/2016

3 ways to Plot a Short Story


Many (if not most) fiction authors begin their careers writing short stories before moving into novels. For most of the 20th century, it was almost a requirement to start out this way; write and publish enough short stories to build a name for yourself, then move on to longer books and a publishing contract.

The system works a little differently now. Big magazines don't publish as much fiction as they used to, and fiction-focused periodicals are fewer in number, and their readerships are smaller Anthologies are everywhere, but again, the readership isn't huge. You're not likely to see a themed anthology in the top ten any time soon.

But there's still a big niche for short stories today. The simplicity and affordability of online self-publishing makes it easy to send your short story out into the world. It also means the fiction market is saturated with poorly-conceived, poorly-executed material.

So how do you stand out from the crowd? How do you win the hearts of readers? How do you edge out the competition when submitting to a magazine or anthology?

There's no secret sauce, of course. It's the same as anything else: success is a lot of hard work, and a little luck.

For me, hard work has always taken the form of learning and applying technique. I love books about the craft, but I've found there's a shortage of writing advice on the short story form in particular. Recently, I read Let's Write a Short Story by Joe Bunting of the website The Write Practice. It wasn't a bad book, but I was a bit disappointed. I went in hoping for a detailed breakdown of how short story structure differs from novel structure, and how to approach plotting and editing a short. Instead, I found the same old advice about submitting, self-editing, and staying on task. It was good advice, but I've heard it all before (and written about it too).

Luckily, I've had some ideas about short story structure churning in my head for a while, and my disappointment with Let's Write a Short Story has motivated me to share them.

Why bother plotting a short story at all?


I mean, it's short, right? Why go to the extra effort?

Well, if you're like me, plotting is as much a habit as it is deliberate practice. It's hard for me not to plot. But even if that isn't true for you, any story, no matter how short, is worth sketching out in advance. I firmly believe that good stories are like icebergs: the reader only sees the tip, but there's a vast framework beneath. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

And as I've said before, it's easier to work out kinks in an outline than in a story. Your first idea is rarely your best, so when you're approaching a story it pays to sketch it out first and revise a few times before committing anything to the page.

So how should short stories be structured? I've thought about it, and I'm pretty sure there are three general ways to do it.

Compressed Four-Act Structure

If you haven't read my series on story structure, this might not be familiar to you. Please go read it, it's awesome and everything I say is 100% right, because I'm super smart.

Anyway, traditional story structure can be compressed down to a shorter format. When plotting out signpost scenes and major turning points, you try to express what you need to as simply as possible. Instead of an entire scene or series of events at Turning Point One, you write just a single moment that changes the game. Instead of a whole Save-a-Cat scene, you write one moment, maybe just one line of dialogue that will engender sympathy for your protagonist.

I tried this strategy when I wrote my short story Deep (available from major retailers!). The story began with a couple bickering, and to create sympathy, I had the main character apologize to an android that overheard the argument. Apologizing to a robot is meaningless, of course, but it showed that she was embarrassed, and embarrassment is sympathetic. That was the idea, anyway. Buy it, and let me know if it worked!

Compressed story structure can work on a surprisingly small scale. With Deep, I crammed my entire four-act structure into about 5000 words. Four act structure is more about proportion than amount. As long as the important turning points are spaced right, it doesn't really matter how much story they contain. The resulting rhythm will still feel familiar.

The Vignette

A popular form with literary fiction authors and art house filmmakers, the vignette isn't really a story in the technical sense. It's really just a single scene intended to highlight a particular theme, emotion, setting, or character.

Vignettes can be done well, but they are often misused. Sometimes, authors will write vignettes as a way of exploring a setting or character, but nothing interesting happens in the resulting story. The writer merely describes a person or place, and perhaps gives us some interesting bit of backstory or exposition, but there is no narrative present. Vignettes like that are useful to write, but not very interesting to read. They're notes, really, not proper writing.

Remember; the key to good fiction is conflict. To keep readers interested, something has to be wrong, and it has to be wrong now, not in the murky, shapeless past. If you can't find the conflict, you're writing notes, not a story.

Good vignettes will paint a detailed picture of a theme or emotion. In Coffee and Cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch uses the vignette to explore the theme of awkward, tenuous conversations. The scenes he presents vary widely in tone, but at the heart of all of them there is some form of uncertainty, and that provides the conflict.

Vignettes can be extremely short, or relatively long. The thing that makes them vignettes is that they happen in a single time and place. A long vignette can be a riveting slow burn if you lay the tension on thick enough. Think of the opening scene in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. That scene would probably make an amazing short story.

The key to using a vignette effectively is to keep the tension in focus. Even in the longest vignette, there's really no room for exposition. Get to the conflict, and let the reader stew in it until the scene comes to its close. Afterwards, the emotion you developed will still be ringing in their ears.

Sequence Structure


If you haven't read my article on sequence structure, here's a brief summary:

A Sequence is a group of related scenes. It consists of two phases, Action, and Reaction.

The Action Phase has three parts: A Goal, some kind of Conflict that impedes the character's progress toward that goal, and some Outcome (usually bad) that results from the conflict.

The Reaction Phase also has three parts: An emotional Reaction to the outcome, a period of Deliberation on what to do next, and a final Decision, which provides the next goal.

For more, read my article, or check out K.M. Weiland's series on this topic (I think my terminology is easier than hers, but the idea is the same...because I stole it from her).

Sequence structure as a short story plotting framework is new for me. I haven't actually written anything I've plotted this way (I've plotted, but I haven't actually written). But knowing how well this framework translates into novels, it stands to reason that it's a good way to write a short story. Gripping stories all have that domino-effect feeling, whether they're short or long.

In a novel, you typically have several main sequences linked up by smaller ones. The smaller ones can be cut short or interrupted, but the main ones should usually proceed unhindered. In a short story, I think you probably just need one, or one and a half. Let me explain.

The beginning of any story needs some kind of hook. Something has to be wrong right away or the reader isn't likely to get interested. To me, either a goal or an emotional reaction can provide this.

A goal is a desire with a plan. It can be established quickly, and then you move right into conflict. A goal in itself is already something wrong: wanting something means you don't already have it. Depending on what your character wants, that can be enough right there. Imagine a story starting off with one character wanting to kill another. That's conflict!

In sequence structure, the emotional reaction is a direct result of the preceding outcome. If the outcome is usually bad, that means the reaction is already fraught with conflict. You could open on a character fuming with frustration, buried under anguish, or blinded by rage. If you paint a good picture of what this person is like when they're frustrated, depressed, or enraged, you will supply a vivid portrait of the character (which is good to do early on), and you'll be starting with internal conflict that a reader can sympathize with.

Whether you start on Action or Reaction, all you need to do from there is proceed in the natural order. In a short story, I don't think it's a good idea to interrupt the flow of sequence structure. That might work in novels, because you have plenty of time to tie up any loose ends you leave dangling. But even meaty short stories need to be relatively compact. If you feel the need to interrupt or break sequence structure, maybe what you're writing would work better as a compressed four-act structure, or even a full novel.

Wherever you begin, I feel it's probably best to end on an outcome. This seems natural, because an outcome is more or less a synonym for an ending. You could end on a decision, but you'll want it to be one of those momentous, life-changing decisions that portends great or terrible things. Executed properly, a decision can create a resonant ending, which you always want. In general, though, I'm willing to bet readers will prefer ending on some kind of result.

So if you want to start with the Reaction Phase, your outline might look something like this:

  • Reaction: Bob is angry at Sheila for sleeping with Dave.
  • Deliberation: Bob goes back and forth about whether or not to kill one or both of them.
  • Decision: Bob decides to kill them both.
  • Goal: Bob wants to kill Dave and Sheila, so he goes to buy a gun.
  • Conflict: The gun store owner knows Bob, and is suspicious about his motives for buying a gun.  
  • Outcome: Bob takes his anger out on the store owner, and winds up getting arrested.

If you want to start with the Action Phase, your outline might look something like this:

  • Goal: Bob wants to Kill Dave and Sheila, so he goes to buy a gun.
  • Conflict: The gun store owner knows Bob, and is suspicious about his motives for buying a gun.  
  • Outcome: The owner refuses to sell Bob a gun.
  • Reaction: Bob's anger intensifies.
  • Deliberation: He thinks of other ways to kill Dave and Sheila.
  • Decision: Bob takes a knife from his kitchen and waits for Sheila to come home.
  • Goal: Bob wants to kill Sheila.
  • Conflict: Sheila returns home with their kids.
  • Outcome: Bob can't kill her in front of the kids. He buries his anger, and we're left with the sense that life from then on will be very different.

Okay, maybe those aren't really great stories, but they illustrate my point. Sequence structure is an adaptable framework that allows you to create a domino effect of any length. This makes it perfect for short stories, because their length varies.

***

I've thought a lot about short stories. I'm a lifelong fan of story cycles like Bradybury's Martian Chronicles and Asimov's Foundation Trilogy (which is actually a collection of related short stories). But for whatever reason, there just isn't much material out there about how to write and structure them. There are hundreds of books about how to write a novel, but the only book I found on writing short stories had more to say about the publication process than the task itself.

These three structures are all I can come up with. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, but when I plot short stories, it's always in one of these ways.

How about you? How do you plot short stories, if you do it at all? Can you think of any other structural frameworks I could include? Comment and let me know!