Structure in the Short Story
30 November 2016
Posted: 4 December 2016.
I just attended, with one of my writers’ groups, a writing workshop offered by a guest speaker. Our speaker threw out some interesting ideas on structure in general and structure in the short story in particular. The first comment he made was “Are you sure that your novel is not a short story and vice versa?” He then suggested that often beginning writers run out of steam because their novels are not really novels but are short stories that need cutting, rather than expanding.
He followed this up by suggesting, and I made no notes so I write from a memory that fails me more often than it used to, that a short story should have a structure that runs something like this:
stasis > key occurrence > end of old world (stasis broken) > beginning of new reality (the world upside down) > quest (the search for new balance) > climax (when all the events of the crisis come together) > the moment of truth (when the central character is faced by a decision) > the choice (the protagonist chooses) > pay-off for protagonist (order is restored and the protagonist is changed or confirmed by his choice) > pay-off for readers (who see that change and are themselves changed by looking at the same old world through different sight and a new knowledge or insight gained).
One of the group members circulated his notes from the workshop and summarized the idea rather more succinctly:
The first thing I remember … in any story, the main character has to be changed at the end from what s/he was in the beginning.
The other item was the list of elements in a story: Stasis, Trigger, Quest, Surprise, Critical Choice, Climax and Resolution.
Clearly this is a theoretical structure, but many short stories follow it or versions of it. Through this structure, our speaker suggested, there often runs a leitmotiv and this can provide a thematic unity that also holds the story together. Returning to this thematic unity and writing selectively from within it, can often produce the desired change in reader and protagonist. Equally clearly, there is no length to this structure and the resulting story may be very brief or suitably enlarged.
According to our speaker, the character of the protagonist is very important and the key aspects of the protagonist’s character must be clearly drawn, right from the start. The protagonist must also go through some sort of change as the story and the protagonist’s character both develop. Place is also important and the protagonist should be linked into a place and preferably a time. The protagonist in the short story is, after all, in a dialogue with his time and his place (his chronotopos, as Bakhtin would phrase it).
This is certainly a prescription for short story writing, one of many prescriptions, I might add. A quick search turns up another definition, this time of a five-point narrative arc offered by Mark Flanagan:
“Sometime[s] simply called “arc” or “story arc,” narrative arc refers to the chronological construction of plot in a novel or story. Typically, a narrative arc looks something like a pyramid, made up of the following components: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.”
Flanagan continues with a definition of each moment in the story. Exposition reveals the characters and the setting. Rising action is a complication that hinders the protagonist. Climax is the point of highest stress or tension. Falling action is a releasing of the pressure and the resolution ties up all the loose ends. (Taken from this site)
Lope de Vega, the Seventeenth-century Spanish playwright, suggested a simplified three-part structure: situation > complication > unfolding / dénouement. Of course, the complications may be multiple, resulting in an action that runs situation > complication > further complications > complicating the complications > even more complications > even more complicated complications > and then the final unraveling of the ‘by now very twisted’ plot. An even simpler two-part definition, also from Spain’s Seventeenth-century, offers us the dual structure of a ‘world in disorder’ > ‘a world in order’ — how the characters progress from disorder to order is up to you as a writer.
Of course, the author may decide NOT to tie up all the loose ends and re-order the world to perfection. When this happens, we may have a dystopia: the disaster continues; or we may have an open ending that prompts the reader to wonder what might happen or what might have happened. As for ‘beginning at the beginning,’ there are also stories that begin in the middle (in media res) and then go backwards in time before going forwards again. This raises the awkward question: how short is a short story? I won’t attempt to answer that one here.
Whether you describe or prescribe, there are many possibilities in the world of short story telling and it is always the story that counts. If it is good, then perceived structural flaws that go against these prescriptive methods may well become a prescriptive structure for another future writer. Interior monologue and dream, for example, linked thematically but not necessarily linked in time and space, may well distort or destroy yet another structural format, that of the three classic unities of time, place, and action. these, incidentally, are expanded into four by the great Spanish playwrights (among others, I am sure) who add unity of theme to the other three.
Robin Grindstaff, in an online article entitled “Narrative Arc: what the heck is it?”, available at
suggests yet another simplification and reshaping, of the narrative arc idea.
“Think of narrative arc as a bell curve. It starts at a point on the lower left hand side of a graph, rises in a curve to a peak, and then drops back down again. The standard narrative arc is often referred to in terms of the three-act play: a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
This is not unlike the structure outlined by Lope de Vega, except for the fact that ‘middle’ is a rather inadequate term for the multiple complications outlined in the Lope de Vega model. This statement may be a little unfair as Robin Grindstaff goes on to outline the complications that may occur in the second act in the following fashion:
“In act two, the main character must try to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting event. The character wants something, has a goal in mind. The conflict and tension of the story rise, and obstacles are thrown in the path of the character to prevent her from achieving her goal. The character faces these obstacles on her way to overcoming the conflict. The obstacles get bigger, more difficult, and the character may be on the verge of defeat or surrender. At this point, the character must make a critical decision or a moral choice that changes the direction of the story.”
Clearly the ‘obstacles that are thrown’ compare favorably with Lope’s consistent throwing of obstacles and ‘middle’ therefore becomes a euphemism for ‘complications.’ Act three allows for the climax and resolution of the story and this includes character change or ‘death in defeat’ and tragedy. I recommend this article very strongly, as it goes way beyond the outline I have offered thus far and clarifies many features of the narrative arc.
In fact, Grindstaff then references Nigel Watts, Write a Novel and Get It Published, and outlines an eight-point narrative arc that runs
stasis > trigger > quest > surprise > critical choice > climax > reversal > resolution.
This runs a close parallel to the circulated list (quoted earlier) of seven elements:
Stasis > Trigger > Quest > Surprise > Critical Choice > Climax > Resolution.
The main difference being the insertion of a reversal between the climax and the resolution.
So, we have now established an narrative arc, or a pyramid, with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 steps included within it. This is all very prescriptive: do it and you will succeed. My greatest fear then becomes the gate-keepers, those anonymous figures who sit on shadowy selection committees, place ticks in appropriate boxes, and judge the quality of writing by consensus in committee. I can hear them now: “#7 is missing. There’s no reversal. Reject!” “I don’t like #5. The choice isn’t critical enough. Reject!”
As writers, we must remember that all these arcs and numbers are just theories. The most important thing is the command ‘Take up thy pen and write’! All the theory in the world does not produce a good short story or a good novel. In fact, the opposite may be true: too many rules may stifle our narratives at birth or choke them to death My advice: know your theories, then smash them into little pieces and create the new structures, the new formats, the next new great piece of writing that will lead you, as a writer, to boldly go where no writer has gone before.
Blessings, happy writing, and follow your creative instincts.