Short stories: A loose, vague, probably imprecise law of structure

Short story structures are delicate things and can get out of hand quickly. But if you stand it up on these four pillars, short stories can be robust and not easily toppled.

Jenn Fir
November 4, 2021

Cat photo for attention, tax, and a tiny spike of serotonin. You’re welcome.

I’ve decided, along with a few members of my writing group, to craft a short story for submission at the end of the month. One month to write 2500-7000 words. Not difficult, right? Yeah, I started brainstorming and my 200k epic fantasy brain backfired and broke down on the side of that road. I realized I needed to lay down some ground rules for myself in order to proceed in any meaningful capacity. (caveat emptor–these are for me, and are not representative of real short story law):

1. One main character and one supporting character.

2. One location.

3. One unique or cool or rad thing about the universe.

4. ONE AND A HALF PLOTS. The Why Should I Care as a reader AND as the protagonist.

Wtf do I mean 1.5 plots? I consider a short story to be an intro and a body with a short or nonexistent (implied) conclusion. The intro is the 0.5 plot; it starts the reader down a mental path, introduces the elements of the twist to hit at the end. This is the “why should I care” for the reader. The hook, the introduction to your world.

The body (1 plot) of the short story is the “why should the protagonist care,” and it should distract enough from the intro that when you hit the reader with the intersection of the intro and the main plot, both they and the protagonist are spun right ’round and staring back at the horizon they’d forgotten 7k words ago.

Bonus: how did I come up with my most recent idea? I had a seed of an idea based on a theme. Then I asked myself, “How does this idea relate to the theme? What consequence comes from it?” Then,”Who in this universe cares, and why?” I verbally rolled the idea around, performing my standard “four ideas pick the fourth” exercise (your first three ideas for a story element are most likely predictable and boring. I find my 4th is usually the cool, the unique, with surprising yet inevitable potential). So, in the law of my short stories, the whole plot will end up on this note…therefore it should start with it, to introduce the reader early, but then to make them forget with seemingly unrelated plot–only to bring it back at the end in an inevitable perpendicularity, like the sudden slap of the butter side of toast on the floor.

Now I have a person, place, thing, an action and a consequence…and a why we care.

I feel like I’m ready to start outlining.

Do you have a seed of an idea? A mysterious pelt on a hunter’s wall, a derelict ship floating in space, a magic cult? Who, in your story, cares? Why? How do the why and the idea seed relate? Post yours in the comments below or in Discord (link in the sidebar) and let’s work through it!

(Originally posted Ded 3, 2020. Migrated from old site)

Jenn Fir

Sci-fi and fantasy author with a taste for change and a love of the impossible. Fir trees rule!