Short Story Structure

January 07, 2013

I wrapped up a first draft of my next novel in early December, and I decided to make 2013 a year for building my short story skills. I love short stories but I’m more inclined toward novels and long fiction, I think in part because they’re, well, longer. I like robust stories with full worlds and deep characters.

I write 3-4 shorts a year, which isn’t a lot, and they reflect my inclination toward longer stories. In fact, one of the most common critiques I’ve heard over the years of my short stories is, “This feels like the start to a larger piece.” And truth be told, most of them were, because it’s how I think. Too big, too much.

In prepping for my 2013 focus I began by doing a review of common story structures, convinced I’d missed something peculiar to short stories. Much of what I’ve read over the last month was familiar, but then I came across this older post by Philip Brewer on Story Structure in Short Stories.

Like Philip, I’m no stranger to story structure. I’ve attended several courses and read a few books on the subject. I still have notes from a wonderful lecture on Conflict, Plot, and Scene by Timons Esaias, in which he provided a classic structure for use to help a writer get started. You might recognize this as a common structure for fairy tales:

  1. A Person
  2. In a Place
  3. With a Problem
  4. Protagonist Strives & Fails
  5. Protagonist Strives & Fails
  6. Protagonist Strives & Succeeds (or Fails)
  7. Resolution

It’s a valuable structure, but with my approach to storytelling I’m looking at easily 5K words. This isn’t a problem with the structure, it’s a problem with my thinking, and until I read Philip Brewer’s post I was convinced I’d never quite get it.

Philip has this to say:

…short stories tend to have parts of the structure pared down: Not all steps are shown in full-blown scenes. It is important that the steps “take place” in the context of the story—that’s what makes it a story. But it isn’t necessary to show each step. It is enough simply to mention them. In fact, it can be enough simply to imply them.

I’ve heard this before, or something similar. A lot can and should be implied in a short story. My problem is in figuring out what can be implied and what’s essential. I can see this struggle as I look back over my work. But it’s what Philip says later that cracked it for me. An honest-to-god short story structure that makes sense to me:

It was less important to me to learn the answer to my first question, about the structure of a successful short story, once I understood how those structures relate to “complete” stories: I could now build up my own successful structures. But, as it happened, Geoffrey A. Landis had a pretty good description of the essential core of a short story. A story needs to:

  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  2. show that choice by actions, and
  3. those actions must have consequences.

I put this to the test in December as I was working on a short targeted at a specific anthology. I won’t know if the story’s been accepted for a few months, but for this first pass I was more interested in whether the structure helped me tell the story rather than whether it helped me sell the story.

It worked. I managed to write a first draft in a few hours, which for me is record time as I generally feel the need to throw everything in up front and edit out later. But this time, those three essentials kept me so focused on what needed to be there that I found myself naturally implying parts that I normally would have tried to include.

I now have a good model to help me move forward through the year. By no means would I say this is a universal model, but it’s workable and practical:

A short story must imply a full story structure while demonstrating a character’s relevant decision and that decision’s consequences.

Hopefully this will help another writer struggling with the same issue. And thanks to Philip for his brief yet insightful post.

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