Plotting a Short Story

By | October 21, 2013

charles-dickens-at-publwriting-deskWriting short stories.

*sigh*

Plotting.

Pantzing.

Plontzing.

How ridiculous does it get to get?

First. What is a short story?

Wikipedia Short Story Definition.

A short story is a brief work of literature, usually written in narrative prose. Emerging from earlier oral storytelling traditions in the 17th century, the short story has grown to encompass a body of work so diverse as to defy easy characterization. At its most prototypical the short story features a small cast of named characters, and focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a “single effect” or mood. In so doing, short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far greater degree than is typical of an anecdote, yet to a far lesser degree than a novel. While the short story is largely distinct from the novel, authors of both generally draw from a common pool of literary techniques.

Short stories have no set length. In terms of word count there is no official demarcation between an anecdote, a short story, and a novel. Rather, the form’s parameters are given by the rhetorical and practical context in which a given story is produced and considered, so that what constitutes a short story may differ between genres, countries, eras, and commentators. Like the novel, the short story’s predominant shape reflects the demands of the available markets for publication, and the evolution of the form seems closely tied to the evolution of the publishing industry and the submission guidelines of its constituent houses.

The short story has been considered both an apprenticeship form preceding more lengthy works, and a crafted form in its own right, collected together in books of similar length, price, and distribution as novels. Short story writers may define their works as part of the artistic and personal expression of the form. They may also attempt to resist categorization by genre and fixed form.

Let’s start by taking a look at the first paragraph.

A short story is a brief work of literature, usually written in narrative prose. Emerging from earlier oral storytelling traditions in the 17th century, the short story has grown to encompass a body of work so diverse as to defy easy characterization. At its most prototypical the short story features a small cast of named characters, and focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a “single effect” or mood. In so doing, short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far greater degree than is typical of an anecdote, yet to a far lesser degree than a novel. While the short story is largely distinct from the novel, authors of both generally draw from a common pool of literary techniques.

The key points I get from this paragraph are the following:

  • Small cast of named characters.
  • A self-contained incident.
  • It uses plot.
    • More than an anecdote.
    • Less than a novel.
  • Short stories and novels are distinct, but draw from the same literary techniques.

For me that is as good a definition for a short story as any. What it means is that you should focus on a single event for your short story. You should plot it, but nothing overly complicated. You shouldn’t introduce more than a handful characters at most.

That, for now, is our definition of a short story, but how do you plot it, and what is plotting?

Again wiki says (this time on plot):

Plot is a literary term defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, in a sequence, through cause and effect, how the reader views the story, or simply by coincidence. One is generally interested in how well this pattern of events accomplishes some artistic or emotional effect. An intricate, complicated plot is called an imbroglio, but even the simplest statements of plot may include multiple inferences, as in traditional ballads.

So, the plot is made up of the events that make up a story. Who’d have thunk it?

The reality is, as complicated as we usually want to make it that is what it is. The events that make up a story.

The trick is as they say that “the devil is in the detail,” or in this case how we lump those events together. Any old order won’t do.

Fortunately, we’re dealing with “one self-contained incident.” How frickin’ complex can that be?

There is a guy (isn’t there always?) with some interesting thoughts on plotting. Gustav Freytag. At its most basic Freytag’s method still resolves to the age-old beginning-middle-end formula. What makes it worth the read is how it’s put together, in the sense that he tells you what to put in the beginning, in the middle and in the end.

Then there’s another (always another there is, right folks?) way to look at the short story. James Scott Bell describes this in his How to Write a Short Story blog post from March 2013. For me the key point is the following.

A short story is about one shattering moment.

This aligns itself very well with the Wiki short story definition from above. I really recommend you go read his blog post in a few minutes for the full scoop on the matter.

So, back to the original question/musing.

Plotting? Pantzing? Plontzing?

AKA.

How to Plot A Frickin Short Story

Find that self-contained incident. That one shattering moment. That’s the key part of your short story.

Where does that fit?

In the beginning?

The middle?

Or The End?

Now that you know where it fits figure out how it all ends. Write a sentence or two about that. Then figure out how it all starts and describe that without using too many lines of text. Then shortly state what the middle is about and tie the 3 points together. Remember to remember to use the one shattering moment! Now tie the 3 sections together in a few sentences.

That is your plot!

Now you can start writing your frickin short story. Remember to write the end first, then the beginning, the middle and finally tie them together in a way that makes sense and entertains.

Oh and I just threw a template of this model together for you. Just click on the linkety Short Story Plot Template text to download it in a PDF format you can easily copy and paste into your favourite word processing device :-)

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