I have a problem. For the past two years or so, every time I set out to write a short story–something, say, 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. (Further reading: Ian McEwan Believes The Novella Is The Perfect Form Of Prose Fiction)
But I digress. As I say, there’s 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 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 ofset-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution.”
4. Shift (mid-point)
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.”
“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.
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! 😉
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 evenconsider 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.
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.
Looking over the story structure I just detailed I wonder if a person could use it to write ashort 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.