An expansive mini-guide for structuring your short story.
Structure and Character in the Short Story
Let’s talk about short story creation and structure.
· A short story typically has 1500 to a 7500-words. You need to always read and follow submission guidelines when submitting stories.
· Flash Fiction has around 500 to a 1000-words.
These tips tailored for — but not limited, to stories 3000 to 4000 words.
· You need a character with a deep need or desire. Something that they will fight or struggle to get or resist. They need an external need/desire and an internal need/desire. This need or want is intertwined with the character’s core motivation for their actions and choices, consciously or subconsciously, good or bad. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
· Your character needs resistance, and by that, I mean something, someone, situation or event, that prevents them from fulfilling their deep need or desire. This resistance generates conflict for the forward story movement.
Clarify and simplify your character’s personality with a one-word description tool to capture character essence while you write. Describe them with one word to help you create a concept in your mind to use as a guide. ex: hopeless romantic, avenging mailman, nervous bank teller, guilty father, cranky bus driver.
Decide on setting. Setting can be snow at Christmas, or in the middle of Walmart, or a rainy day Monday, or waiting for a bus at the bus terminal.
Or a situation can also serve as both setting, location, and generate general conflict ideas: A bank robbery or shopping for toilet paper during the Corvid19 pandemic.
Start a short story as close to the end and in the action as possible.
What is a story hook? Why use it? A hook is something that is special about your story that grabs the reader’s attention keeps them reading. A hook is story-based through ideas and concepts directly connect to the story world. Suggested reading: Active Hooks.
In short stories, the hook works somewhat like the inciting incident in novel plotting. You want to grab them in the first couple of lines or by the first and second paragraphs.
Keep your word limits in mind.
Get rid of thought verbs, to be verbs and excess filler words such as just, really, very, even, then/than, suddenly, and phrases like at or in the moment, just now and so forth. Write with conciseness. Limit your adjectives.
Use strong verbs such as batter, blab, growl, gush, shimmer.
The purpose of a scene is to show a moment in the life of the character within the story world moving toward the story end goal.
Story Movement — Rising Action
The rising action is a series of actionable scenes leading up to the climax of a story.
The word limits of short stories do not leave a lot of room for characterization, setting, and conflict. That means you have to be selective in word choice and limit your conflict.
The rising action begins at the beginning of any story. Actions and choices, when presented with resistance, move your character toward the story’s high point. (Novels structure refers to this as the climax — turning point.)
Short stories, unlike novels, will only have two or three of these moments until the turning point because of word limits.
Conflict In Story: Resistance
The purpose of all conflict in stories is to move the story forward toward the end story goal or scene story goal.
Conflict is NOT something random happening or daily routine.
Conflict is anything that stands in the way of your character reaching their greatest desire or need creating change within the character and/or outside the character or story world.
Conflict is generated and sustained through the choices and actions your character takes when blocked by the resistance, keeping them from the thing they desire or need most.
The High Point or Climax
The climax is somewhere in the middle of ANY story. Everything after that will be falling action moving the character toward the resolution or end story goal.
The climax is the highest pivotal moment or emotional point signifying a change in direction or heart in the story. It is the moment when your character realizes how much they have to lose.
It also clarifies and solidifies all rising action to this point leaving, no doubt why this is happening or happened.
The character is all in — no turning back win or lose.
In short stories, this is often the dark night of the soul too or followed, in short, by the dark night of the soul because of limited word counts. The falling action then is the events that move the story toward the end goal or resolution.
Falling action occurs after the climax and sets a tone opposite of rising action cueing the reader the end approaches.
In a short story, you may have two or just one falling action moment, conflict — resistance, before the resolution. The falling action is the journey to the wrap-up. You tie up loose ends giving the reader closure for the story.
A Summary of Short Story Structure
- The beginning = Setup a character with a problem in setting
- The rising resistance = A character faced with choices and prevented from reaching or achieving their deepest desire or need. (Obstacles to overcome internal and/or external.)
- The climax = This is the highest point in the story. It is created by the rising action forcing the character to go all-in with no turning back.
- The falling action = The journey and resistance to reach the end tying up all unfinished elements moving to the story resolution.
- The resolution = The problem is solved through the characters, choices or actions, achieving their deepest desire or need or accepting the loss. All loose ends are resolved. It may also show a brief glimpse of the character in this new world created by their journey and choices.
Here are some free tools to help you create characters and guide story structure.
· Bonus extended character creation cheat sheet using astrology for creating more 3-dimensional characters and in-depth worldbuilding.