Do you want to write a short story, but are unsure about how to develop a short story plot?
Short stories rarely require extensive plotting. They’re short, after all. But a bit of an outline, just to get the basic idea down, can help you craft a strong plot.
Plotting your short stories will give you an end story goal and will help you avoid getting stuck in the middle, or accidentally creating plot holes. You’ll have fewer unfinished stories if you learn to do a little planning before you start writing.
And in this article, you can learn how to take your short story's primary conflict, and build a plot around it.
Definition of Plot and Structure
I see the terms “plot” and “structure” thrown around interchangeably quite a bit, so I'd like to correct that before we move on.
Plot is a series of events that make up your story.
Structure is the overall layout of your story.
Plot is (most likely) unique to your story, but there are a handful of basic structures that are universal and used over and over again. (We'll get into the basic three act structure in a later post.) Structure is the bones and plot is what fills it out.
The Strength of a Short Story Idea
When I first started out writing short stories, I had no idea where I was going with any of them. Absolutely none. I see this time and time again with newer writers. I think it’s because we’re conditioned to think any kind of art is only driven by that infamous and often elusive muse rather than hard work. I felt the same way.
And then I started getting more stories under my belt. Some I finished. Some I didn’t.
You know what the difference was? The stories I finished, I plotted before I wrote.
Now I know a lot of writers loathe plotting or outlining stories—of any length, but especially short stories. They have various reasons for this dislike, but the most common one I hear is planning or outlining takes all the “magic” out of writing. “Creative writing is about being creative!”
I won’t get into the idea that writing is actually a job here—it is. That’s not what this article is about.
Instead, I’m going to propose a different reason for planning a short story with one important question: Is your idea even a story?
Planning out your story, even if it's short, can give you an answer to this question. It will determine whether or not your central character can work towards achieving a goal (and simultaneously the plot moves towards a climax), or if your idea ends there—at the idea.
Writer's tip: If you're feeling stuck on coming up with an idea that could withstand a story's length, try looking at the types of plots discussed in this article.
Is It a Story or Just a Story Idea?
Don’t panic. I don’t plan extensively. But what I've found was absolutely no planning whatsoever more often than not leads to wasted time. Nobody has time to waste.
If I don't plot at all, I'll get maybe a third of the way through the story and get stuck. I’ll have no idea where it was going, and without that goal in mind, I'll flounder. I might tinker around with the idea a little longer, but most of the time I’ll end up abandoning the story.
A few weeks ago, I had the infamous muse visit me. I grabbed my notebook and started writing. It was great writing. The prose was good, the main character was crazy interesting, ditto for the secondary character, and I'd set up a mystery that made you want to turn the page. The problem was I had no idea what the mystery was. I had set up and no payoff. This story idea fizzled out at the start of the second act.
Now, to be clear, I do indulge my muse every once in a while. It does feel good to be taken over by an idea, even if you don't know where it's going. It's all very “artisty.”
But the fact is I’ve sold one story that I finished without plotting it beforehand. One. Out of dozens I’ve started. That one took me about a week to write and it was torture for me, for my characters, and, I'm sure, for the backspace on my keyboard. Everything about the story reads as forced. It's uninspired. And you know what?
That's the one my muse started me on! Inspiration is supposed to be the point of the muse, right? But a muse can only get you started; it can't keep you going.
Your muse won't finish a story for you.
When your muse starts poking at you and you don't know if your idea is a story, ask yourself a couple of questions:
- Am I going to remember this idea tomorrow? Yes, it's nice to be taken over by inspiration. Feel free to indulge that every so often. But also be prepared to have an unfinished story on your hands. You don't necessarily have to wait until tomorrow to write the thing (especially when we're talking about shorts), but you do need to know if your enthusiasm is going to wan a few minutes down the road when your muse decides to go take a nap, leaving you with nothing but frustration. (That story I mentioned a moment ago? I haven't completely forgotten about it, but it does not sit at the top of my mind.)
- Do I have a “What if?” question and an answer to that question? If you're thinking about beautiful sentences where nothing is happening, that's probably not a story. If you can't think of an end goal for your character, that's probably not a story. See the next section for more on “What if?” and the answer. (The story I didn't finish did not have a goal in mind.)
- Do you have a character? This one seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how often I used to start “stories” and just ramble on with purple prose. No people, no action, no story.
If the answer to all these questions is “yes,” then you most likely have a finishable story. If it's “no” tell your muse to go back to its hole until it can come up with something better.
If you must, explore the idea a little more and see if you can't plot a little something. (Do not write yet!)
Enter the “What if?” question.
What If? How Asking This Question Can Plot a Short Story
In the last post, I told you my favorite way to think of a short story idea is the “What If?” question. This question can help you think about various ways to put your central character into a conflict, like: What if X happened? It’s your own mind giving itself creative writing prompts.
Let’s expand on that method a bit. Notice it’s a question. And questions often have answers, do they not? Knowing the answer to your “What If?” question is the most basic outline of a story.
Let’s start with a basic question.
Q: What if someone knocked on my door?
A: I’d probably ignore it.
That’s it. That’s the story. It’s kind of crappy, right?
Notice that answer is my immediate reaction to the knock. It’s not something that happens down the road. That’s part of what makes this scenario NOT a story.
The other issue here is there is no conflict. I don't answer the door, the person goes away, and I'm left to my own devices. There are no consequences for my decisions, so nothing happens—and nobody reading about this incident cares.
Without conflict, there are no stakes in a story. No conflict equals no story.
What Makes a Good Conflict?
Remember conflict can come in many forms and doesn't have to be a shoot 'em up kind of situation. Internal conflict can also make a short story. But there MUST be conflict.
So, on multiple levels, this question and answer session is a loser.
Now, let’s say I don’t answer the door. (I’m a millennial. I’d rather not talk to people if I can help it, so this really is the most likely thing to happen.) The person assumes I’m not home. But wait! They’re a burglar. They now try to break into my house. The “What If?' question has now changed to “What if someone tried to break into my house while I was home?”
See how the central character has to do something now? Even if they don't, there will be consequences.
Because the story idea establishes stakes, I know I've got something. How do I know? There are myriad possibilities here. I could call the cops. I could run out and confront them myself. I could freeze and run upstairs and hide. I could sic my dog on them. I could wait for them to get inside and invite them to join me in having a cup of tea.
Whatever I choose to do, there will be a cause and effect trajectory of events. Which means more stakes, and more opportunities that force my protagonist to face their conflict. They have to make decisions, which will lead to a whole slew of other “What If?” questions:
- What if they get in before the cops get here?
- What if they break a window?
- What if my dog was outside and they hurt him?
- What if a neighbor sees them and comes running over?
- What if they “break in” but it’s really just my sister needing in my house for something?
- What if I’m hiding under the bed and they find me?
- What if they hate tea?
- What if … and the list goes on.
These are all more interesting scenarios than just ignoring the door and the person going away. But we’re still looking for the answer to the initial “What If?” question. The answer solves the question and puts it to bed. It doesn’t lead to other questions.
Don't Forget to Answer Your What If Questions
A short story only has one to three scenes normally, so your answer needs to come in a short span of time. It can't come years down the road. Any span of time longer than a few hours, maybe a day or two, is probably too long.
Q: What if someone tried to break into my house while I was home?
A: I would call the cops, but also grab my bat and be ready to use it.
But wait. That still doesn’t answer the question, not in a final way. There’s still an open ending there, still questions. (Did I use the bat? What happened if I did?) Let’s try again.
A: I would decide not to use my bat and would talk to them until the police got there.
That’s better. With this scenario, I can think of a couple of things that would happen after the police got there, but at that point the situation is over. I’ve done it. I’ve defeated the burglar. Anything afterwards is a conclusion to the story.
The best part is, I’ve actually done it in a way that means change for me as a central character. I didn’t want to talk to anyone to begin with, which is what led to the whole situation. But I have to overcome that aversion by talking to someone in order to solve the problem.
Short Story Structure
We’ve got two important elements of the story narrowed down now: the “What If?” question and its ultimate answer.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might have come across the many posts we have about plot structure. In a story you need six things:
- Exposition (Background and setup.)
- Inciting Incident (A major event happens to your character.)
- Rising Action (or progressive complications, a sequence of events where things get worse.)
- Crisis (Ah, what is your character going to do?)
- Climax (Showdown based on what your character decided to do.)
- Denouement (Finish it up.)
Need a refresher on these plot elements? Dive further into story structure here.
A short story is often only one to three scenes. That means this structure, these six elements, stretch over the entire story to form the framework. (The scenario I’ve presented would most likely be a one-scene story.) Notice I'm talking about framework here. These six elements are your story structure.
So what do we have here after all this thinking about questions and answers?
The “What If?” question is your Inciting Incident.
The ultimate answer is your Climax.
Boom. Two elements down. And these two elements happen to be the bulk of what your readers will remember from your story.
We’ve planned a story, believe it or not. And it didn’t even hurt that much.
But wait! There’s more. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
In the process of coming up with these two elements, we’ve inadvertently come up with a couple of others.
Choosing not to use the bat and talking to the burglar instead? That’s the Crisis. All those streams of “What if?” questions? Those are progressive complications.
Whoops. We’ve outlined basically the whole thing, haven’t we? I sort of tricked you there. Sorry, not sorry.
Plotting Doesn’t Hurt—Too Much
Plotting a short story doesn’t have to be a meticulous thing that requires hours of work and a running spreadsheet. It also doesn’t have to take the magic out of writing.
Your plan for your short story can be a simple, loose outline. (By the way, outlines can change if you think of something better! They’re not set in stone.) Really, you just need two elements to get to writing a short story:
- A “What If?” question (identifies the Inciting Incident)
- The answer (shows the Climax)
And then you’re ready to write!
In future articles, we’ll dive more into writing structure and the essentials and plot elements of a short story. For now, use this “shortcut” to plan out a few short stories of your own! Have fun with it!
Do you like planning or are you more of a pantser? Let me know in the comments.
For today’s practice, use this method of taking a short story idea and turning it into a short story plot. Choose one of the “What If?” questions below and come up with the ultimate answers for at least two of them.
Remember, if it’s not an ultimate answer or nothing really happens between the What If and the answer, you don’t have a story.
- What if an alien landed in your backyard?
- What if you got a phone call informing you that you’ve inherited a horse farm?
- What if you were forced to live with a talking robot?
- What if you won a trip to space?
- What if you found a dead body at your workplace?
- What if your child’s imaginary friend was real?
Work on coming up with answers to at least two of these for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, share your questions and answers in the comments section (bonus points if you have some progressive complications in there!).
After you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers. Happy writing!
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.