How to structure a short story and the mistakes to avoid

Stories are built on some form of logic that follows arcs, which follow the story’s plot. For novel writing, it is easy to tell a complete story in multiple unsuccessful attempts to solve the story problems. But this is difficult when writing a short story.

Before you attempt to write a short story, you should consider asking yourself;

  • How is a successful short story structured?
  • What are the ways I can achieve a complete short story structure?

The question we need to understand is, why do we need to structure a short story?

Structuring a short story is like giving a skeleton to a human body. The short story structure is important to hold your story and give it life.

Here are some ways to help with structuring a short story for great writing

THE BOX

The box which can also be seen as the prose used in telling your story consists of the plot, setting, and characters which are connected to the conflict. If you can have these three elements in conflict, you have a story.

Draw a circle in a box and label it conflict, then draw similar circles with the three elements all interlocking into the conflict. The box helps you;

  • With a plot that will serve the story you want to tell
  • Have unique settings
  • Have interesting characters

ACTION, BACKGROUND, DEVELOPMENT, CLIMAX, ENDING

When writing a short story, begin with a compelling action that draws your readers in. You don’t want to bore your readers before they even start. Then have a background that lets the readers see and know the characters and how they came to be. After that, your characters need to be developed into the plot, the drama, the tension, and the actions and let them move in that rhythm to the climax.

The climax changes things and spurs the readers on to the ending of what happened to your story journey.

You should find a way to build these into a point in your story, even if you decide not to follow through with this pattern.

So how do you structure your short story?

THE SEVEN-STORY STRUCTURES

These are a range of structure types that can be used for short story writing that you can try, these includes;

In Medias Res

It is a Latin word meaning “in the midst of things”. This form of structure begins a story with action, which may not necessarily be fast paced, but something has to be happening.

Avoid using backstory or description when using this form of structuring. In Medias Res puts your reader on the get-go of your story. It consists of;

  • Rising action
  • Backstory
  • Climax
  • Falling action
  • Resolution

Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method

The Snowflake Method involves outlining your story before you begin. It is best to start your structuring with a central idea, and then add more ideas systematically to create your plot.

The three-act story structure

The best and most typical way to structure a short story is to divide it into three acts.

  • Introduction:  This is the start of the story where you introduce your characters to your readers, and establish your story tone and setting. It is also the point where your protagonist is usually called to action.
  • Confrontation: This can be the difficult part for a writer because you have to keep your reader interested in the middle before they get to the ending of the story. This is where the most conflict and challenging situations occur for your main characters as they transition in the story.

Some writers mistake the climax for the end, but this the point where your character has tried all he or she can and failed, and everything seems hopeless.

  • Resolution: Building towards a satisfying conclusion at the resolution for a writer is living up to the promises you made early in the story. At this point, your main character engages in their last act, he or she does something that tips the scale or solves problems.

Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure

It consists of four simple steps;

  • Plunge your character into a terrible challenge as soon as possible. This depends mostly on the genre you are writing, and the challenge must be deep enough to carry the entire story.
  • Your character’s effort to elude the challenges should worsen things.
  • Give a situation that appears hopeless and bleak. This should also make you ponder on how to get the character out of the situation.
  • Your character succeeds in the end and becomes a hero.

The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s journey is often used in structuring fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories. It takes the following steps.

  • Your protagonist leaves his/her comfort zone
  • Your hero experiences various challenges
  • Your hero tries to return to the beginning, but as a changed and reformed hero, not just a character.

James  Scott Bell’s A disturbance and Two Doorways

James Bell introduces the following concept in his book, Plot and Structure.

  • A disturbance; anything at the beginning of the story that threatens the ordinary life of the protagonist affects the status quo of the story.
  • Doorway 1; otherwise called the door of no return that propels the character to the middle of the story. Once your character goes through this door, there’s no turning back.
  • Doorway 2; this door usually leads to disaster or a final battle.

The 7 point story structure

Most writers who use this form of structure usually advise that writers start with the resolution of their story and then work backward.

The seven points are as follows;

  • Hook: This should be your protagonist’s starting point
  • Plot turn 1: Here, you introduce the conflict that moves the story to the midpoint.
  • Pinch point 1: Pressure is applied to the protagonist to achieve the goal set out.
  • Midpoint: The protagonist responds to the conflict with action.
  • Pinch point 2: There is more pressure on the character which makes it harder to achieve the set-out goal.
  • Plot turn 2: This moves the story from the midpoint to the resolution. At this stage, the protagonist is provided with everything to achieve the goal.
  • Resolution: Everything in the story leads to this moment of climax, where the story of the character becomes victorious against how it started.

If you effectvely use any of the above listed short story structures, you are sure to have a great story written.

COMMON MISTAKES TO AVOID IN SHORT STORY STRUCTURING

Structural glitches in story writing are a common obstacle that can cause a writer to lose faith in their work.

Below are some of the common mistakes and problems of structuring in short story writing that you should avoid.

NO STRUCTURE (EPISODIC NARRATIVE)

This is when a writer shows concrete happenings or the everyday life occurrences of a character in their story. It may include drama and conflict, but it would lack a true story to build on.

Writing a story is a very specific thing.  A story is an antagonist who wants something, and a protagonist who stops the antagonist from succeeding, and the journey that ensues because of that.

Every story must have a purpose, have a goal, have stakes, and a resolution or resolutions where an ordinary protagonist becomes a hero.

There needs to be a structure of your story and an endpoint. But in an episodic narrative, the story never ends, it keeps going forever.

If your story has no structure, it cannot be an actual story, because the structure is a key element in story writing.

LACK OF CHRONOLOGY AND FORESHADOWING

As readers journey through your story, your narrative chronology programs them into what should be expected. Is there a straight line of storytelling? Are your characters being alternated in the story? Is your story alternating between timelines and perspectives?

Despite the structure, you need a methodology that the readers will trust, and that makes sense.

Foreshadowing also falls into the realm of chronology and enhances structuring.  Don’t just throw solutions anywhere in your story because it is convenient. It loses tension and suspense.

Foreshadow events with tension and suspense, and misdirect the readers a bit, so that when they eventually realize what’s happening, it gives them a new context of the story plot

POINT OF VIEW

There are different types of narration when it comes to writing a short story, and this is called the point of view.  How do you handle the point of view in your story? You must be consistent in your character’s point of view.

This is a common mistake and problem some writers face especially when using a first-person point of view narrative. You could begin with the first-person narration, and later in the middle of the story, you switch to the third-person point of view.

This makes the story seem uncoordinated and confusing for your readers and makes your story all over the place.

Some writers purposefully use a different point of view narration, because they think this makes the story more interesting and exciting. Truth is, what it does is confuse your readers and make them drop your story before they can get to your beautiful plot.

SELF NARRATING

Self narrating as I prefer to call it is when your narrator sounds so much like you. This is particularly a problem in short story and fictional writing, because fiction writing demands the most flexibility that explores emotions, and imagines events to carry those emotions.

Therefore, if your narration is tilted by who you are only and not who you think you might become through the course of the plot, your story becomes stale.

INCONSISTENCIES

Inconsistency is one of the common problems of structuring in storytelling.  If you use a particular name for a character, be sure that you do not change that character’s name in other scenes, unless it is part of the story plot that the character undergoes a phase or experience that requires them to change their name.

Or perhaps, your story started as a romance story, and halfway through, it becomes a mystery-themed story, and before it ends, it metamorphoses into an epic story.

The goal of telling your story is to engage your readers into a cohesive story that is consistent from the beginning to the end.

UNNATURAL DIALOGUE

Dialogue in a story is like the visible road of the writing journey, it is what engages your readers and brings them to know your characters, and understand your plot. If your dialogue is weird or strange, or not in the way that people would speak, then it becomes a problem.

If you are writing your plot based on a particular place or people, your dialogue language has to be natural and in the way the place speaks, if you do otherwise, your story becomes not relatable to your readers.

Dialogue makes a story engaging, don’t make the mistake of making yours distracting.

INFO DUMPS

This problem mostly relates to backstory and how most writers handle it in their stories. Avoid dumping all of your character’s backstory at once into your writing.

Backstory should be layered into the story as you write on, and when it is needed because the backstory is not always needed or expedient. It is mainly to guide you as a writer to understand your characters better and web them beautifully into your story.

Also, do not make the backstory your main story, this is a huge problem in the structure of short storytelling, it reduces your story to the past in flashbacks. This makes stories boring and slow.

TOO MANY READERS BEFORE YOUR WORK IS READY

How is this a structural problem? Well, let me tell you how. There are people called Beta Readers, those who read drafts of story works before they are ready. Allowing lots of people to read your draft work before it is done, may cause you to lose focus and time following the direction of someone else’s review or opinion, because you will be far more open to feedback at this stage than at a later stage.

In conclusion, Kurt Vonnegut’s advice on structuring your short story includes;

  • Give your readers as much information as soon as possible
  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that time was wasted
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for
  • Every sentence must do one of two things; reveal character, or advance the action
  • Every character should want something, even if it is a glass of water
  • Start as close to the end as possible
Awe Ogon

Awe Ogon

Awe Ogon is a lawyer, an L.L.B and a B.L. holder with over 9 (Nine) years writing experience, a Nigerian who resides in Accra, Ghana. She is a Christian, an ardent reader, a prolific writer, and published author of Misnomer (a collection of poems), and a non-fiction book, Conversations with God, and two fiction novels in view. Writing has always been her edge over life; her work is outstanding and captivating. Her goal in life is to become a great writer that inspires others through her work.

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