You want to write short stories. Perhaps you’ve heard that today, short stories can be profitable, or you want to improve your fiction skills. This year I’ve had more questions about writing short fiction than anything else.
So let’s look at some tips to help you to plot your stories. Yes, your stories must have a plot. 🙂
By the way, if you’re new to short fiction, read our article, Fast Fiction: 30-Minute Fiction Starters.
Plot and write short stories readers love: focus on character transitions
Do you have challenges with your plotting? The great novelist E.M. Forster had a wonderfully clear-eyed way of looking at fiction:
“We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.”
To emphasize… “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. If you remember causality — cause and effect — you’ll write excellent stories. Cause: the death of the queen. Effect: the king’s death (because of his character trait — more on traits in a moment.)
It’s challenging to plot stories (remember we said that “plot” is a verb).
For satisfying fiction, your characters must change
[clickToTweet tweet=”For satisfying fiction, your characters must change” quote=”For satisfying fiction, your characters must change” theme=”style1″]
Here’s how to make plotting easier.
Focus on character transitions. Your characters change. The causal events in your stories teach them something, and your characters change in response. If they don’t change, that’s OK too — “a leopard never changes his spots” and all that (grin). What’s changed is that the character in your story realizes that he isn’t going to change, and that’s a change too.
Here’s an example of character change. You’re writing a thriller. Specifically, a “serial killer” thriller (yes, that’s a genre. :-)).
Part of your story is from the point of view of the killer. He commits his third murder; the first two happened before the start of your short story or novel. He’s changed: he’s learned that he enjoys killing.
If you were writing this story as a short story, the transition/ change might be the end of your story. If you were writing a novel, on the other hand, this transition would end the setup of your novel. If you were plotting turning points, that would be the first turning point. (More on scenes below.)
If you understand transitions (character changes), you’ve taken a big step forward.
Let’s look at our tips; they’re basically shortcuts that I use all the time, and encourage my students to use. If you can internalize these ideas, you’ll find that stories flow from your fingertips.
1. Corral your story elements: characters, goals, situations, conflict, obstacles, et al
Writing short stories is excellent training, in some ways, for writing novels. Your short story needs the elements of a novel, if it’s to be satisfying for readers. Some of the elements may be touched on in a sentence.
We’ve talked about the Basic Short Story Template: Keep It Simple!. You don’t have the space to get complicated if you’re writing a short story.
Since your stories are about transitions, you’ll know your ending before you start your story. That makes for much faster writing, and it’s easy, if you remember character traits.
2. Use shortcuts — character traits and genre
OK, let’s write a story. If you don’t have an idea in mind, here’s a way to get fast ideas.
You’ve come up with an idea for a story: a woman realizes that her boss is trying to get her fired, because he’s been stealing from the company.
That’s a situation, and it would be a fun story to write.
A digression. Here’s an exercise. For the next five days, come up with three situations each day. Keep them in a notebook. You’ve now got 15 ideas for stories. End digression… 🙂
Recall that your short stories focus on character transitions.
So, what is your main character like at the start of your story? Perhaps she’s shy. She never speaks up in meetings, but she works hard, and she’s an asset to the company. She loves her job.
So you’ve got:
- A shy woman who loves her job and is about to be fired (her goal is to keep her job);
- What’s her motivation — why does she want to keep her job? Maybe she’s paying off her younger sister’s medical bills, or she’s recently divorced, and can’t keep up with her mortgage…
Her motivation depends on the genre of story you’re writing. Choose now — mystery, thriller, romance, historical? You don’t have to choose, but it’s easier to write your story if you do.
We’ll say that you’re writing a mystery.
Since you’re writing a mystery, your main character can’t know that her boss is stealing from the company right away. She becomes suspicious of him, because it’s obvious that he wants her to be fired. Finally she realizes that hundreds of thousands of dollars are missing.
3. Count your scenes: wrap up your story in four scenes
We’ve talked about the importance of scenes often, and of scene length. Let’s say we’re writing a story of around 6,000 words, with five scenes
In our “woman fired, nasty boss” mystery, we could create these scenes:
- Scene 1, the setup: introduction to the characters, and the situation. Our main character loves her job, and thinks that she is doing it well. However…
- Scenes 2, 3 and 4: complications and conflict. Her boss berates her for not completing a project. She believes she had another month to the deadline. She realizes that money is missing, and the auditors are arriving in a week — her boss tells her to leave the investigation to him. The woman wonders whether her boss is trying to gaslight her. She becomes aware of the mystery (who stole the money? Is her boss a thief? Is he setting her up to be blamed?) She is determined to solve the mystery;
- Scene 5: wrapping it up — your character solves the mystery. It’s essential that readers see your main character’s transition, from shyness to being willing to stand up for herself.
Use the tips: you’ll be able to plot a short story in five minutes
Remember causality: “the king died, and then the queen died of grief” , and use our tips to plot a satisfying short story in just a few minutes. Have fun… 🙂
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