Short Story Structure: The Art of Writing a Great Short Story
A short story is a piece of fiction between 1,000-4,000 words (although it can go as high as 15,000 words). Simply put, it’s a story you can read in one sitting.
Sounds easy to write, right?
Short stories are notoriously difficult to write, and that’s often because the writer hasn’t understood the basics of good story structure. So, if after finishing writing your short story you’re left thinking, This is so boring! Where have I gone wrong? Is there a short story plot or structure I can follow? – then you’ve come to the right place. Because chances are you may need to rework your short story structure.
In this article we will look at various types of creative writing short story structures and how to analyse them. It may seem formulaic or predictable in the beginning but trust the process and you’ll soon see results. Then, we’ll have some fun practising how to apply the generic story structure template to your work.
By the end of this exercise, you’ll have gained the confidence to create short stories that both make you happy and showcase your talent.
What is Story Structure?
The structure for a short story is not dissimilar to that of a full-length novel – your readers still expect the same rise and fall. The most basic story structure is called the ‘narrative structure’ and is defined as ‘the order in which elements of a narrative are presented to the reader or audience.’
Essentially, there are two parts to it which are plot and the elements of a story. Author of Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell, provides a further explanation:
‘Simply put, structure is what assembles the parts of a story in a way that makes them accessible to readers. It is the orderly arrangement of a story material for the benefit of the audience. Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better. Structure is about timing – where in the mix those elements go.’
Let’s take a closer look at what all this actually means.
Structural Features of a Short Story
As stated, there are two parts within any short story structure. The first is the plot which is ‘what happens’ or the chain of events that occur in your short story. The other is ‘story elements’ which is the ‘underlying factors that drive the narrative action: protagonists, conflicts, setting, etc.’
A helpful analogy for how to create a traditional short story structure is when you weave a piece of fabric. Naturally, a finished product has to have a harmonious look and feel when it’s draped across your body. Similarly, when you properly weave together things that happen with things that matter in your short story, you make that vital connection with your readers. They’ll not only understand what is happening in your short story, but what it all means.
There are five main structural features of a short story:
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
- Resolution (or Denouement)
To show you how to analyse a short story with plot structure, I will be referencing the Bengali story of Devdas by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, which was adapted into a very successful Bollywood movie by the same name.
This is the part of the story where the characters and setting are introduced to the reader. There are generally four types of characters:
- The Protagonist who is the main character whose journey we follow in the story.
- The Antagonist whose goals are often the opposite of the protagonist’s.
- The Dynamic Character who changes as a result of the events in the story.
- The Static Character who does not change at all.
In the opening scene of Devdas, you meet our protagonist by the same name. He returns home to the love of his life, Parvati (Paro). She is the dynamic character who changes upon her marriage to another. The antagonists are Devdas’s father and family, who oppose the union. The static character is Chandramukhi, the woman to whom Devdas eventually turns to.
2. Rising Action
Here, the protagonist faces challenges and crises. It’s the catalyst which sets the story in motion, forcing the protagonist out of his comfort zone. In the story, Devdas and Paro admit to having fallen for each other, gradually becoming aware of his family’s opposition to this union.
Often the most exciting part of the story, the protagonist is tested at this stage. In Devdas, our protagonist makes a catastrophic decision to reject Paro and watches her marry another.
4. Falling Action
This refers to the events that follow the climax, often where the protagonist believes he’s failed. Devdas begins to drink with a vengeance and goes to live with the seemingly unsuitable courtesan named Chandramukhi.
5. Resolution or Denouement
The conflict has been resolved and the character has changed. There can be three different outcomes: the protagonist gets what he wants; the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants; or, the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants, but realises that he has something more important.
In Devdas, it’s a mix because the protagonist does get his wish to go to Paro to die. However, he also acknowledges and reciprocates something important – Chandramukhi’s eternal love.
Types of Short Story Structures
Now that you have an overview of a good short story structure, let’s delve a little deeper and look at some actual structures of stories beginning with the ‘Hero’s Journey’.
The Hero’s Journey
One of the best-known story structures, ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is a pattern that exists in many world mythologies. For the mainstream storyteller of today, Christopher Vogler created a simplified version and framework of it which can be applied to almost any genre of fiction:
- The Ordinary World, which sets out the protagonist’s everyday life.
- The Call of Adventure, where the protagonist is incited into taking action.
- Refusal of the Call, where the protagonist is reluctant to take action.
- Meeting the Mentor, where the protagonist meets a mentor (parent, teacher, spiritual master, etc.) who encourages him to take action.
- Crossing the First Threshold, where the protagonist steps out of his comfort zone and takes action.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies, where the protagonist faces challenges.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave, where the protagonist gets close to his goal.
- The Ordeal, where the protagonist meets his greatest challenge.
- Reward, where the protagonist acquires what he was looking for and victory is in sight.
- The Road Back, where the protagonist getting what he wanted may have made things worse.
- Resurrection, where the protagonist faces a challenge that hinges on everything he’s learnt.
- Return with the Elixir, where the protagonist returns home, triumphant.
Three Act Structure
One of the most notable forms of the basic short story structure is the ‘Three Act Structure’. In some instances, the three acts are described as the Beginning, the Middle and the End. Place them within the context of the previously listed structural features of a short story, and they can be described as Setup, Confrontation and Resolution.
In Act 1 (Setup), include the element of Exposition where the protagonist’s ‘ordinary world’ is set up. Additionally, you’ll also have an Inciting Incident where an event will set the story in motion, and Plot Point One, where the protagonist crosses the threshold. The story truly moves into gear.
In Act 2 (Confrontation), increase the stakes for our protagonist by using the element of Rising Action. Next, move to the Midpoint where there’s an event that upends the protagonist’s mission. Act 2 ends with Plot Point Two where he is tested and fails. His ability to succeed is now in doubt.
Act 3 (Resolution) begins with the Pre-Climax which can best be described as the ‘the night is the darkest before dawn’. Our protagonist must muster all his courage and choose success over failure. Next comes the Climax where the reader must wonder if the protagonist will fail or succeed. Finally, there’s Denouement where, against all odds, the protagonist has succeeded. This part ends with the consequences (both good and bad) of such success.
Seven-Point Story Structure
Developed by Dan Wells, this structure encourages you to start at the end with the Resolution, and work your way back to the starting point. The elements of the Seven-Point Story Structure will include the following:
- The Hook, which states the protagonist’s current situation.
- Plot Point 1, where the protagonist is called to action.
- Pinch Point 1, where the protagonist faces his first blow.
- Turning Point, where the protagonist becomes active and decides to meet any conflict head-on.
- Pinch Point 2, where the protagonist faces his second blow.
- Plot Point 2, where the protagonist sees that he has had the solution to the problem all along.
- Resolution, where the story’s primary problem is resolved.
A Few More Story Structure Examples
Although they’re uncommon, there are four more short story structures you can use. The first is Freytag’s Pyramid, which is described as a ‘five-point dramatic structure that’s based on the classical Greek tragedies,’ and used in more depressing contemporary tales.
Dan Harmon’s ‘Story Circle’ is heavily inspired by the ‘Hero’s Journey’. It is focused on the protagonist’s character and his wants and needs.
A variation of the ‘Three-Act Structure’, the ‘Save the Cat Beat Sheet’ was created by a Hollywood screenwriter called Blake Snyder. A very precise structure, everything in the story happens exactly where and when it should.
The ‘Fichtean Curve’ effectively starts with the Rising Action and does away with Exposition because the characters and setting will reveal themselves from this point on.
How to Write a Short Story Structure
Let’s look at these ideas and structure suggestions in action. Here is a breakdown of one of my own short stories, The Flame, longlisted for the Exeter Literary Festival.
- Ordinary world: Nina receives a wedding invitation and encounters a familiar dilemma – “What should I wear?”
- Something shocking happens to break the status quo and the protagonist receives a call to action: The dress code is surprising – ‘Ethnic Best’.
- The protagonist vacillates, but ultimately answers the call to action: After contemplating other options, Nina decides to wear a sari.
- Although the protagonist makes a sincere attempt to attain her goal/meet her need, she fails and feels defeated: Nina chooses a georgette-chiffon sari the family calls ‘The Flame’. Nina’s mother cautions her about wearing this sari.
- This is the mid-point where the protagonist tries to defeat the thing preventing her from getting what she needs. If she succeeds, a bigger challenge faces her. If she fails, she has to face up to her weakness (usually internal). More often than not, she’s made the problem worse: Nina’s mother reminds her that it’s ‘a rule’ that women wear silk garments at Hindu wedding ceremonies. Nina stages a protest.
- This is the time for self-reflection, a mentor’s pep-talk, or, the protagonist hits rock bottom: Nina does some research into this ‘rule’.
- The protagonist accepts her fate and begins to make a concerted effort to overcome her weakness: Rejecting the ‘rule’ Nina insists on wearing ‘The Flame’.
- At this ¾ mark, all seems lost. The protagonist figures out that there’s a chance at success, but it’s a long shot: ‘The Flame’ is nowhere to be found.
- The final push where everything that is improbable yet plausible happens. Yet, the protagonist succeeds because she’s overcome all her weaknesses: Nina turns the house upside down looking for ‘The Flame’.
- This is the wrap up where the protagonist returns to the status quo a transformed person: Nina finds ‘The Flame’ and is the only guest who’s comfortable at the wedding.
Try it Yourself!
Take a look at our various types of short structures, analyse them, and decide which one will work best for your short story – then see what you create!
Writing a great short story takes time, but once you apply the skills you’ve learnt you’ll soon find yourself in the company of outstanding writers.
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