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Writing

How to Plot a Short Story: 5 Steps for Short Story Plotting

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 11, 2020 • 3 min read

So you want to write a short story? You’re in great company: New short story collections, packed with vibrant portraits of real-life or fresh takes on science-fiction, are plentiful. Short fiction is an excellent way for writers to take risks. When you write a short story, you create something based on a subject that interests you but which may not work in a whole novel.

Short stories can be deceptively difficult to write since they require a concise and extremely economical narrative containing all the elements of a novel—in a fraction of the space. But sometimes less space means more freedom in plot structure.

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How to Plot a Short Story

A great short story drops the reader into its world swiftly and holds their attention all the way through. Plotting a short story doesn’t have to involve an exhaustive list of plot points: It can be as simple as knowing a few key moments you want to work your way toward, or sketching out a sequence of events you may scramble around later in the revision process. You will inevitably make changes to your original plan along the way, and this is a good thing. You’ll always wind up with things you never imagined at the start, so if you’re a plotter—plot. The rest of the story will fall into place how it likes. Follow these steps to plot your next story:

  1. Brainstorm. You don’t need to have multiple short story ideas ready to go at a moment’s notice. All you need is one solid concept. When an idea comes to you, sit down and flesh it out. Use writing prompts to spark an idea. Make note of any characters, settings, or bits of dialogue that you see. Learn how to brainstorm story ideas here.
  2. Write out the central conflict. The foundations of your main conflict or theme often form a short story’s rising action. To create tension and movement, you must know exactly what your character wants and what would prevent them from getting it. Conflicts can be internal or external, so imagine at what stage the reader will be meeting your character. Are they already in the throes of defeat? Or do their obstacles provide the action for the story?
  3. Create a brief outline. Sketch out the flow of events your short story will contain, including interactions between characters and key moments. Jot down identifying characteristics and traits—but when it comes to drafting, pick your moments of backstory carefully: In order to make the cut, a piece of information must contribute to the story’s central events in some way. Learn how to outline a story with our guide here.
  4. Pick a point of view. Many short stories work well in first-person because of their vignette-style brevity, but there’s no hard and fast rule saying yours must: If your story needs to be told in second-person or third-person, that works, too. Regardless of which POV you choose, it’s usually best to center that narrative around one main character to ensure a consistent read on the situation at hand and a clear understanding of the stakes for the reader. Find our guide to point of view here.
  5. Select the right story structure. Short stories are an excellent place to release your hold on the rules of structure. You can in a linear fashion or embrace nonlinear narrative. Your story may feature a full narrative arc, or just one pivotal moment within it. You can try beginning your story in media res—which means opening the story in the middle of the action—or leading with the inciting incident. Short stories allow the freedom to experiment because of their brevity.

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