Seems like a lot of folks I know who are good at short stuff have trouble with novels. A lot who are comfortable with novels seem to have trouble with short stories. Neither is something to ashamed of. It's tough to translate something we're used to doing into a different format, even if it seems as easy as "just think of a novel and make it shorter."
First of all, there are differences. Short stories can be intimidating because there seems to be less room for error. If there's a strict word count limitation, it also forces you to pick each word carefully. They have to fight for a chance to be in the story. Each word gets scrutinized. Having to deal with those constraints is actually a good exercise, which will help you write better novels. Another thing is there's not much room to wander and explore, and some writers enjoy that part of the journey.
What I'm going to share with you is simply one way of plotting a short story. Do I use this on every one? Nope. But I have used it, for action-driven stories. I reverse-engineered some of my best shorts and found that all the action-driven ones come close to using this structure, naturally. And again, this is just a guideline. It's just like any other structure out there. The Three-Act Structure. The Hollywood Formula. While it may also seem, well, formulaic, I assure you it can still be utilized for any kind of story. Just like with those that use the 3-Act or Hollywood structure, you can have two totally different stories that still don't resemble each other. Note - I will be sharing some other structures for short stories soon to give you a better selection.
So let's get on with it, shall we? You probably saw the image above. Maybe it looks complicated. I can assure you, it's super simple, and if you decide to try it, you'll end up with a solid plot every time. The only thing you'll have to tweak is the pacing (as far as plot is concerned).
The simplest version:
- Setback (Crash)
The Very First Thing
First thing I do is bracket the story with Premise and Punchline. The premise, for my purposes, is the hook. What makes that story unique. For example, humans are subservient to intelligent apes in Planet of the Apes. That's a solid premise. I also like to end my short stories with a punchline. It's basically a snappy climax. It gives them a bigger kick. The ending of The Sixth Sense is like this. You can still wind down after the climax (denouement), but you don't have to, not here. Sometimes you can leave right when you throw the punch. It's up to you. But that's what I do.
I lay out the premise and the punchline (for me, it's usually a big twist) first. This gives you an idea of your general story arc. It tells you where you're coming from and where you're going.
- Premise - Humans are subservient to wizards and the wizards can't be killed with standard weaponry.
- Punchline - The human hero figures out how to kill a wizard, but he does it with standard weaponry (there will be a believable reason for this, and it will involve a plot twist)
Once that's done, I simply throw in the catalyst. Sometimes you'll hear this called the inciting incident. This is the event that throws everything into motion. It gets the characters moving toward the punchline. This also helps prevent you from starting the story from the wrong place. It lets you hit the ground running. Start in the thick of it. With the action. That, combined with your premise hook, should propel the reader right along.
- Catalyst - A man trashes a wizard's rookery after hitting his breaking point, which puts thoughts of revolution into the minds of other fed-up non-magic folk.
Now you just need to get from point A (the catalyst) to point B (the punchline).
So What Happens Next?
Once you've got the catalyst, the rest really isn't that hard. All you do now is have the characters respond to the catalyst, followed by a setback. You want setbacks - conflict, tension - because they make your story exciting. The harder it is for your character to reach the goal (possibly the punchline), the more your audience will appreciate it. They'll feel like the character deserves it. So throw something in there after the catalyst. Put a stick in the protagonist's spokes. The more daunting the scenario, the better.
- Setback - The wizard retaliates. He makes an example so that others realize this behavior is unacceptable and fruitless.
Now Throw Them a Bone
Now that you have the setback, go ahead and throw them a bone. Give the characters a gain. Let them get ahead. Say yes to them. Let them move closer to the goal. A lot of structures will have you go back and forth, yes, no, yes, no. Like so. This is basically one no/yes right off the bat. Will the protagonist move closer to their goal? We shall see. Oh, wait. A setback. No. But then they do something that brings them closer to the goal. Yes!
For better effect, you can make this bone a double-edged bone.
- Gain - Other wizards see these revolts as an opportunity to wreak havoc on rival wizards, so some of them help the humans.
Don't Let Them Get Cocky Yet
But don't let them get too far. Hit them with another setback. Remember that tension is awesome. Conflict is awesome. Making it hard for your characters to get the goal is the essence of the story. Make them earn it. Like I said, some structures do this a lot. Seven sets of yes/no's? Not necessary with short stuff, but if you want, go ahead. But for our purposes, we're going to stick with no/yes/no. This is essentially letting the villain get the first strike, let the hero comeback, then let the villain get the upper hand again. The villain can be anything, too, by the way. The environment, the situation. Whatever.
- Setback - The humans realize they're being used. They feel hopeless once again. They realize what they're up against. They need a better plan.
You can essentially go back and forth with the gains and setbacks for as long as you like. Add a few more in there if you like, no big deal. My structure is just a guideline. But when you're done dancing, when you're done with the back and forth, this is when you add the rising action.
I like to just throw in three gains in a row for the protag. Some structures have this as more back and forth, only each gain is bigger in scope. Rising higher than the last time before coming back down, then rising even higher than before. You can do that, too, if you like. Go nuts. But I just like to simplify as much as possible and add in other flavor later. So consider this the bare minimum. Three gains. Closer, closer, closer. The reason I do three gains in a row is so I can yank the rug out for the big crash.
These three gains and the big crash is essentially the Third Act. Make each gain more intense than the last for better effect.
- Gain - They take the saboteur approach. If they can't kill the wizards, they decide to break their things.
- Gain - More lowly humans join the revolution. They pick up steam.
- Gain - They amass a huge army and meet a group of wizards on a field of battle to let them know they've had enough.
The Big Crash
This, along with the Rising Action, is probably one of the most important elements here. Right after the hero seems to have everything under wraps, slam them in the gut with a big setback. A huge one. The iceberg that sank the Titanic. One that brings them to their lowest point in the story. They should feel defeated, lost, hopeless. The best place for this, of course, is right after the three gains.
Something to note about the big crash: you'll want to throw in material that leads to this point so it doesn't seem out of the blue. Side stories are good for this, or using the decisions of the protagonist to cause it, maybe inadvertently. Watch any romantic comedy. They all have this element in there. It's usually a breakup. Either way, it follows a big buildup, and it has to be at least proportionate to that buildup.
- Crash - The humans are no match for the wizards. Many of them are slaughtered.
After the big crash I like to throw in the punchline. You can do this immediately after or throw in another gain. This is where I put the big twist, if I have one (I usually do). If you use a twist for your punchline, remember to go back through and salt clues earlier in your story and occasionally throughout. I like to leave off with the punchline because short fiction doesn't always need a denouement. You don't have to wind down (you don't in novels, either, but most people do). Just throw the sucker punch and walk away. Let the reader leave with a reeling mind.
Sometimes you can even put the punchline right after the denouement. They do this in a lot of horror films. The whole story happens, the wind-down. Then right before the credits roll the monster's eyes click open. Oh no! It's not really dead! I'm not saying that's what you should do, it's just an example. We've all seen a film that does this.
The punchline fits somewhere into the conclusion of your story. I like to start with the premise and the punchline upfront, before I even start writing, so I know where the story's headed. Where the characters have to be. Having a punchy ending is important to me, much like having a catchy intro that begins with a bang. Go out with a bang. Knock their socks off. Leave them thinking afterwards.
- Punchline - A human kills a wizard with the wizard's own weapon after discovering all their power is derived from the way their spells are worded. The legend was that wizards could not be slain by any blade, whether friend or foe.
What are the R's for?
If you look back at the diagram, you'll see two red R's on there. Those stand for "response." They're just a reminder to myself that much of the plot has to do with how the characters react or respond to the setbacks and gains. Nothing just happens for no reason. These technically belong all along the course of the story, but for the diagram I only put two.
Give it a try. Use it on stories that aren't even action-driven. It'll still work. Next time I'll share a totally different method for structuring idea-driven stories (you're leading the audience through a civilization in the distant future and describing their strange customs in detail, perhaps).
The method will give you a solid, basic structure that you can add to. Flavor it however you like. Obviously, my example is a simple one, but it's designed to be simple, to give you a great starting point. Weave two story arcs together. You can even use the same structure on both and have them intersect throughout. Experiment. Have fun.
Also, if you want a bunch of cool generators (names, place names, conflict, motivation, plot, traits, and way more), check out my Android app for writers. It's free!