There are so many ways to structure a short story. The parts that have to be written will differ depending on the chosen formula. I will try to list the elements, that all – or most – have in common. And there are additional circumstances to consider, but read on…
Take a moment to note the aimed word count for your short story. This might come from submission guidelines, where you can find additional hints on how to structure your story. Some of these constraints will be awkward to fix in revision, so better keep an eye on them.
Unlike a flash fiction, a short story might not be finished in one setting. Try do define a mood or setting to return to when continuing the writing. It might help to tackle one scene at a time or one point from your formulas checklist.
I recently had to restart a short story three times because the idea didn’t hook me while I was writing. What helped me – and might help you too – was to visualize the protagonists goal. That gave him a drive, made him active instead of reactive, and helped me decide on what he would try next to reach his goal. With this in mind (and in my notes) I could return to my story and help the progress towards this goal, plus I was rooting for him to reach it.
As most of the time, introduce your protagonist and her problem as soon as possible. Place your stories question to let your reader long for the answer til the end. Remember, that with a short story in an anthology, the reader might just skip to the next one, whenever he does not feel entertained enough. So give him a reason to keep reading in the first sentence at best.
This might either translate to “use your chosen short story structure” or “lead your protagonists to the climax, through all the problems you are able to throw at him within the given word count”. As this is a short story, you can’t spend too much time with background information, description, or idling around. Stick to the plot. Whatever that side character is up to can be content of another short story.
And when in doubt use the rule of three. Three obstacles, challenges, guards, or locks on the door to success.
Twists and Turns
Your hero should never just follow her plan and reach her goal. Give here obstacles, conflicts and all the things worth reading a story. Balance the number of complications with the stories overall length – and the formula used.
The problems should grow worse on each step and feel causal. Make the reader see the progress the hero ist making – or not making – to lead to a fitting climax.
Many short stories might just end shortly after their climax, containing a twist or shifting the point of view to turn the meaning of the whole story around. A short story is a perfect length for this type of twists, as it did not invest the reader for such a long time that he felt betrayed by a surprising ending. It’s also likely that a short story is read in one go, therefore details and wordings from the introduction can be used in the climax.
The story’s climax must result from the protagonists path so far, shaped by his goal and the complications.
The stories question has to be answered within the ending. Yes, there is something like an open ending, but then that’s not your main plot. The protagonists can decide whether he should hide or fight but who wins the battle might still be open to the readers imagination.
How should the reader feel after finishing the story?
With that in mind, it is easier to aim for this feeling and strengthen it through the ending.
A friend of mine compared a short story with a window into another world. In contrast to a novel, where you fully step into this world. It’s a shorter commitment for a reader and therefore should not be overloaded with world building. Leave a fair amount of story to the readers imagination. He does not have to understand every tiny detail, it’s the story that counts.
That said, the plot should not be distracted by all the things that happen on the side – except that’s the concept of your story. Try to put a finger on the thing you tried with this particular story. Be it a certain atmosphere, playing with the repetition of events or phrases, or embracing the formula you use as much as you can.
Does using a formula help you with the first draft? Restriction causes creativity, although I have to admit that I draft “freestyle” from time to time, when an idea appeals to me and I just want to see where it is going. How is drafting your short story going?