The Structure of A Short Story

I’ve lately been reading a lot of my own stuff, which is one of those things you shouldn’t do while sober, particularly if said stuff is more than a couple of years old.  (Read your own stuff, I mean.  Of course you should read mine because you know, I was born amazing.  Also because, frankly, I have NO idea what ya’ll will like… or not)

It’s actually a great setup because they don’t read like mine, so I can copyedit to the limits of my admitedly not detail-oriented ability but they still feel enough like mine that I see EVERY flaw as though under a magnifying glass.

Did I say that’s a great setup?  Well it is, if your goal is to clean the stories up.  For the writer’s ego, which in my case is so collapsed most of the time it might as well be a blackhole, it is a disaster, but never mind that.  I think I have enough rational detachment not to roll up in ball and cry at how bad stuff is.

I did come up with what seems to be a few idiosyncrasies that bear noticing, such as my penchant to have people attacked in their sleep and/or the shower; my penchant to have any woman who plays a musical instrument be pure evil (the men tend to be sweet, though.  Go figure); my penchant to destroy the Natural History Museum, etc.  At least give me props, though, for no longer stalking Kit Marlowe.  It takes effort, but… Stalking a dead man is just evil.  Also, he probably didn’t swing that way. (Actually hard to tell, as Elizabethan England was more… fluid.  But Marlowe is as close to an indication of leaning [or falling over] as we have.)

However, reading these many short stories in a row gave me indications of several things, like “Short stories, I was doing them wrong” – or not wrong, but now I can see how I truncated things to fit within word limit.  You see, I’m a VERY lazy person and I hate doing work for free.  BUT it turns out that when unfettered – the few stories I wrote since realizing I could go indie with them – I tend to 10 to 15k words, not 6.

On the other hand it also gave me a clear idea of how I – note I said I, I’m not telling you everyone should do this! – structure a short story.  I thought it might be of interest to the writers among you.  So, here’s what I’ve discovered.

1- First line or two, introduce the most startling or grabby thing about your characters/setting/situation.

2 – Use the rest of the paragraph to lay 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 –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 – Initiate try/fails to solve the main problem.

5- 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- Activate cunning plan.  (This normally doesn’t involve a turnip, on account of not being a Black Adder story.)

7 – Try fail sequences set up about 3/4 through the story.

8 – Black moment about 1/8th from the end.

9 – resolution and usually not much of what my husband calls a cigarette moment, because it’s a short.

There are exceptions to this, but this seems to be my basic structure, and I probably could outline a short (if needed – might be, I’m out of practice for shorts) by going in and filling in the events at each of those points for whatever the story is.

And now, having got up indecently late (getting over re-crudescence) I’m going to get coffee.

14 responses to “The Structure of A Short Story

  1. Getting over re-crudescence? I’m still fighting it. [Frown]

  2. That’s a lot like working out a screenplay: they essentially have three acts. The setup: who is the POV character, where is it set, leading up to

    PLOT POINT ONE which ends the first act and has the POV character in a heap o’trouble after which

    the characters troubles just get worse (with an occasional lighter moment, perhaps a head fake that things will be okay — hell, perhaps several head fakes) until you get to the BIG SCENE, called

    PLOT POINT TWO, the climax

    after which the cuddling, some conversation, and maybe a sandwich.

  3. I seem incapable of writing short stories for some reason. I don’t know why, but anything I write starts heading upwards of 20K words…

    A couple of weeks ago I found The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. For those of you who don’t know who Lester Dent was, he was the man who wrote most of the Doc Savage novels, while writing and selling tons of short stories. I haven’t tried this yet because I haven’t had time, but I’m going to.

    Wayne

  4. For the writer’s ego, which in my case is so collapsed most of the time it might as well be a blackhole …

    Not wanting to blow smoke up your derriere, the sad fact is that the market is not particularly interested in good writing, all it wants is good enough writing. Nor do readers demand smart writing; smart enough is plenty. You don’t even have to be a particularly competent writer, so long as people like you. So paste this into a banner-sized format, print it out and tape it over your work table: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

    N.B., this is not quite the only time I will ever quote Al Franken, as the possibility exists, however remotely, that he will some day resign his senatorship, confessing his unworthiness of that office (and I have a very low opinion of what it takes to be worthy of that office, knowing somewhat of American History and the roster of inhabitants of that legislative branch — I mean, Teddy Chappaquiddick isn’t even scraping the bottom … ahem, as I were sayin’) there remains the possibility he will someday utter a statement of which I would approve. I confess being a somewhat promiscuous quoter; in the words of President Ulysses S Grant: “!@#*$?”

  5. Bah, still too negative.

    “I’m good. I’m smart. Who needs perfect when so many people love my work.”

    • My quibble is “people like me?” Some people, sure. Yeah, yeah, I know, you can’t be liked by all…

      • Bah – you don’t need a lot of people to like you, you need a critical number to like you enough to buy your work and sustain you in the manner you would find agreeable. A few centuries ago that meant 1 person willing to spend $100K a year on you, nowadays a 100K people willing to spend $1 a year — or 10K people willing to spend $10 annually. And the cost of alienating 1 of your sponsors varies accordingly.

        Frankly, life has taught me that some people, you don’t want them liking you. To quote Ricky Nelson, “You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.”

        • Bah – you don’t need a lot of people to like you, you need a critical number to like you enough to buy your work and sustain you in the manner you would find agreeable. A few centuries ago that meant 1 person willing to spend $100K a year on you, nowadays a 100K people willing to spend $1 a year — or 10K people willing to spend $10 annually. And the cost of alienating 1 of your sponsors varies accordingly.

          And of course you can reach a far wider audience now than you used to be able to. It is a wonderful time to be an artist.

          Wayne

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