Plotting a short story is something that many writers, both new and experienced, find difficult. I include myself in this. It is not always easy, and I say not always, because occasionally we all have those magical days when it is.
For the days when it isn’t, I have outlined some techniques below that should hopefully help.
Starting from Scratch
Give your character a dilemma to solve. Preferably make it the sort of dilemma that will force your character to re-evaluate his life or his attitudes. In this way he will have changed before the end of the story.
Be as nasty as you like. The tougher the problem that your character has to face, the more drama you’ll be able to create.
Make sure the resolution to the dilemma is credible, but also make it as unexpected as you can. This is the tricky bit. Knowing you have to provide a resolution to the story before you start can be very off putting for some writers (it is for me!).
Starting Halfway through
Now, this might sound strange, but I find this is by far the easiest way to plot. By starting halfway through I am saying that you should just start writing. Certainly give your character a dilemma to solve, but don’t worry about the rest.
For example : I once sold a story of 1000 words called The Best Laid Plans, which I’d started the previous year and got stuck on. My original idea was as follows:
The story opens with Katie in bed in hospital on her 25th wedding anniversary, which is not quite how she planned to spend it. Since she married Paul most of their anniversary plans have gone wrong. On bad days she thinks they’re jinxed and on good days she thanks her lucky stars they ever got this far. This was a light hearted story and the humour was provided by flashback (the story is in Katie’s viewpoint) to previous disastrous anniversaries.
I got stuck at the 750 word point, which I frequently do. I couldn’t think how to resolve this story. This is where the plotting bits come in. Because the story is already half written, there are only so many options.
- They could have a late anniversary celebration which could go wrong
- As above, but it doesn’t go wrong.
- They could split up (not very satisfactory for Woman’s Weekly)
- They could decide not to celebrate on the actual day itself, but at other times in the year, after all a marriage isn’t about just one day a year.
I stopped here because I’d found my solution. I used a mixture of number 1, 2 and 4.
Plotting is actually just a chain of events that leads your character to a satisfactory resolution and that resolution will largely be determined by market.
When you’re stuck on a resolution – this is another problem I have frequently, then I suggest you ask yourself the following questions:
- What is it that I am actually trying to say?
- What is this story about?
The Best Laid Plans was a humorous story, designed to entertain, but it did have a serious underlying message – a universal truth, if you like. A wedding anniversary is the day that couples celebrate on, but the other 364 days of their marriage were just as important. They could also laugh about the things that went wrong.
The answer is in what you’ve already written
The seeds you’ve sown early in the story will provide you with the ending. Look at what you’ve set up carefully and then explore every possible option. One of them will be the right one.
Another quite useful thing I’ve learned is that the title should underline the theme, as in The Best Laid Plans – so if you are the type of writer who knows the title before they begin, then this can be very helpful.
And if you’d like any more advice on writing short stories, please check out my two writing guides. How to Write and Sell Short Stories published by Accent Press and The Short Story Writers’ Toolshed published by Soundhaven.com
Next week we’ll look at plotting the longer short story.