4 Things You Can Do To Help Guide Short Story Structure
All stories should contain a guiding structure creating a spine shaping a clear beginning, middle, and end for the reader’s satisfaction.
All stories follow a basic story structure with a beginning, middle, and end. It is an innate expectation that we learned in childhood from the first time someone told us a story, fictional or personal, or we read a book or watch a television program or cartoon.
The trick to structuring short fiction is making the most of fewer words to get the story told.
There are many story structure types that work, at least, for the bigger stories over 3000 words. All tangible things have some sort of frame, skeletal form or load-bearing points to support the reality of its existence. This can be literally or metaphorically. It’s true for a story too.
For storytellers these are some of the most common forms of structure: The 3 act structure (Act I, Act II, Act III), the 3 act structure with the two-part middle (Act I, Act II part 1, Act II part 2, Act 3), the 5 point plot structure, the 7 point plot structure, story beats and so on, but it is hard to make those work and work well in shorter fiction.
But, what about flash fiction and short stories?
You still need to provide some form of story structure so the story makes sense, and your readers can follow it. You also need to end shorter fiction with an ending that will NOT disappoint or leave your reader dissatisfied.
If you missed it, I wrote an article about what it takes to make a good flash fiction.
What makes a good flash fiction piece? Article on Medium
To answer that question, we need to understand what flash fiction is about. It is a short story under 1000 words…
4 Points To Start With
- Start with a character in trouble with an immediate problem/threat/obstacle to resolve. (This can be emotional, and people related e.g. romance and family connections. The key is writing it in active voice using active verbs, phrases, and action words for short fiction.)
- Start as close to the end as possible— limited word count makes this necessary. The bulk of your words will go to middle. That is why you want to Hook’em.
- Give your character a strong need or desire that fuels their motivation and write toward that goal. (Make a list of every obstacle you can think of that will prevent them from reaching or achieving this deep desire/need and problem.)
- In the end it must feel like an end and make your reader happy they took time to read your work: Thrill’em, Wow’em, Surprise’em, Shock’em, Make’em laugh or just be darn right clever and/or witty.
In flash fiction, you want close to 75% of your words to go toward the middle splitting the last 25% for use in the beginning and end.
That is why you want to Hook’em. Put a question in their mind, or make them curious about what comes next, start with a pivotal moment or unusual situation, a quirky character, situation or tone of story. (6 Tips For Engaging Readers on Kobo by Paul Bernstein.)
The middle in any story will house the largest part of your total word count.
For short stories, use active verbs and active descriptions with no frills which help cut unnecessary usage of words. Limit descriptive words and let the readers imagination do the rest. If you choose the right word you only need one or two at most. Google active verbs and active description to find all kinds of lists free online to use.
You need high stakes e.g. life and death intensity or at least to your character. (The antagonist or conflict needs to be part of the obstacle preventing your character from achieving that deep need or desire.)
Now to contradict myself a little because you know life is really an oxymoron.
It does not have to be life and death stakes as long as there is conflict — something preventing your character from doing what they need to do or forcing them to do something they don’t want to do.
Not all stories are do or die, but it does make them fun.
What is Conflict in the Short Story or Flash Fiction? Article on Medium
What was the story question or problem you introduce in the beginning of your story? Did you answer or solve it? Tie up your loose ends. In a short story you don’t have room for more than one, or sometimes two, loose ends. Readers want satisfaction, closure. They want to be surprised, make them laugh, thrilled them, or give them the emotional touch…
Find Your Ending in Flash Fiction and Short Stories? Article on Medium
One of the best courses I have ever taken involved learning how to write flash fiction by Holly Lisle. Free 3-week flash fiction course. This is an affiliate link.
I hope you found this useful. I am still learning myself. I found I enjoy sharing what I learn. My focus and investment right now are in short fiction. Learning to create good shorts that are fun and people enjoy is a top priority, because I have partnered with another writer to create themed anthologies at Stormdance Publications. It has been a fun and rewarding adventure.
Here are my tips to help improve your short stories.
Juneta Key is the columnist and editor of The Ninja Writers Pub fiction section on Medium. She is the manager of the accountability program for Ninja Writers LLC and founder and host of the Write-In Saloon. She is the CEO of Writer’s Gambit Fiction Consultations, and offers coaching in fiction story development, short story, world building, and Scrivener. As an author Juneta is an admin and moderator for Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG), Facebook community & IWSG Goodreads Book Club. She is a co-founder of Storytime Quarterly Blog Hop, and co-owner of Stormdance Publications which publishes themed anthologies. Her current novel project is the Ghost Pirate, a space opera from the Starlight Galaxy series.