Structure in the Short Story


Structure in the Short Story
Wednesday Workshop
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.

Planners, Pantsters, and Thinksters: Wednesday Workshop


Planners, Pantsters, and Thinksters
Wednesday Workshop
9 November 2016

Two new writers (John King and Amy … ) have joined our writers’ group (Chuck Bowie, Kevin Stephens, John Sutherland, and Roger Moore) and now we are six (with apologies to Winnie the Pooh). In addition, we have a virtual member (Allan Hudson) and a potential member (Victor Hendricken). Amy has joined on a first name basis. Alas, there were only four of us last night: Amy, John K, Kevin and Roger; Chuck and John S were both indisposed. We wish them good health.

This leads me to the question: what is the best way to integrate new members into an already established group of writers? I have no answer. Last night’s activities seemed quite successful.  First we introduced ourselves, first names only (oh dear!) and then we invited Amy to tell us about her writing. What an adventure. She has completed one novel, 110,000 words, and has two more planned in the series. She is questioning her opening chapter: is it the right one or should she begin after chapter three? Without having read the work, I personally find it difficult to give advice.

We explored some of the themes Amy presented to us and discussed a series of images that recurred and seemed to link the novel together. The idea of iterative thematic imagery serving as a leitmotiv came forward and we analyzed how repeated images can tie a novel (or a poem, or a short story) together. We spent some time on triggers that motivate actions and reactions from the characters. What is the trigger or the hook that draws the readers in, makes them look to the future, and persuades them to want to continue finding out more about the characters?

We also discussed Kevin’s favorite topic: planners and pantsters. Kevin is a planner who works everything out in advance. His charts, photos, character guides, outlines, and plans are an exemplary work of art in themselves and are highly admired by the group members. Many writers are pantsters; that means to say they pick up their pens or sit by their key-boards and write by instinct and fly by the seat of the pants. I find myself in between these two extremes, for, like Fray Luis de León and Juan de Valdés long before me, I think most of my writing out and keep it in my head until it comes time to put it down on the page. Perhaps this makes me a thinkster; I would like to think it did.

We also discussed the importance of The First Five Pages (Noah Lukeman’s book, sub-titled: a writer’s guide to staying out of the rejection pile). We invited Amy to send us her first five pages for an online critique. Our next step will be to look at the first five pages of the chapter with which she is proposing to start. It was an exciting conversation. I hope it was not a scary one for Amy’s first time out.

John K has been to one of our previous meetings, plus we had a long series of discussions with him at the WFNB meetings last weekend in Shediac. He and I helped close the hotel bar in Shediac at 1:30 am, so we are very proud of our efforts there. He presented us with the outline of a ‘tale’ that he is developing. Good man: he writes with a pen in a notebook, jotting down his ideas as they come to him and elaborating them in pen and ink, just as I do. Kevin and Amy had their tablets and their computers while John K and I had our pens and notebooks.

Without going into the details of his story and giving anything away, he walked us through the tale as he has it at present. he has great ideas, but at present is in search of a format in which to present his ‘tale’. Is it a short story? Too long and too many episodes. A novella? Could be. A full length novel? We didn’t see why not, and more and more potential episodes suggested themselves as we went along. In many ways it sounded like a film or a televisions series and John K’s active photographic mind, he has done courses in film and script writing, painted an engaging series of linked pictures, all of them with great potential. We are hoping that John K will send us an outline sketch, maybe even a storyboard,  of what he is planning. Perhaps we should also ask Amy for a chapter plan, or would that be too ambitious?

As for Kevin and I, we joined in the conversation, presented commentaries and ideas, outlined some of our own plans and directions, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Kevin’s book DiAngelo will be released on 22 February 2017. He is at the final editing stage right now and is busy, busy, busy with the final version of the text. We are all excited for him and are pushing him to keep at it and get the first novel of his planned five novel series out, and up, and running.   He is also planning a series of pre-release advertisements scenarios, all of which are sure to catch the eye of potential readers.

And that may well be the topic for another day: how do we market our books and what is the best way to attract readers?

Monkey Reviews Retirement

Monkey Reviews Retirement


“No more Latin, no more French, no more sitting on the old school bench.”

Monkey chants this famous ditty as he relaxes in the whirlpool bath, a glass of white wine on the tray before him and his faithful tablet sitting beside it.
“The olde order changeth …”  Monkey pauses and takes a sip of wine, “… lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

“Welcome to heaven,”Monkey lies back in the jacuzzi and the beating waters whirl around him, sending him into a dream world.

No more committee meetings: The unter-monkeys sit in a circle, where all are equal but some are more equal than others.  They pass a lyre bird feather  round and round, weeping crocodile tears and lying through the tight monkey  grins of their alligator teeth.

No more writing reports: The dead text he revises is composed of misquotes, harsh judgements,  double-talk, and outrageous lies.

No more long-term contracts: “Will the defendant please rise. Sir: I sentence you to a term of two years’ detention at this institution, renewable for another two years. And, should you continue to to do well, and should you fail, over that four year probationary period, to fall by the wayside, or to do anything wrong, I sentence you to life imprisonment, till death do you and the institution part. Amen!!!”

No more promotion: Inmates with crowded heads and vacant faces, fools grinning at a universe of folly, paddled in piddle beside him.

No more cabin fever: Monkey has worked for forty years among foreigners and lunatics afraid of the rats who keep him company, devoured by his monkey lust to drive silver knives and forks through the watch springs of their inhuman, foreign hearts.

No more penis envy: They lounge in glass cubicles, checking each other out for size, weight, length, girth, with a roll of the eye, and a casual flicker of a forked lightning tongue.

No more water-fountain gossip: They prefer death by blow-gun, their poison dart injected through hollowed fangs or Chinese Water Torture, the slow drip after drip of poison inserted into ears and veins, a drop at a time, and slowly gathering … until their victim slows down, ceases to struggle, stands there, eyes open, unable to move, poisoned and paralyzed.

No more gala occasions: … gripping cup handles between finger and thumb, enormously pleased to be the center of attention, however clumsily they walk,  in their hired-for-the-occasion, ill-fitting,  black and white penguin suits.

No more macaronic Latin: Caesar adsum jam forte, Brutus aderat; Caesar sic in omnibus, Brutus sic in at!

No more thought police: The Thought Police try to make him change his mind. Others, in blind obedience to a thwarted, intolerant authority, first bully him, then beat him, then bite him till he’s dead.

No more Wittgenstein: Or is it just the act of perception, as Wittgenstein would have us believe, and nothing more, the money always spinning on its metal edge, never falling, the coin on its axis, a new day with its potential,  sunshine or shadow, thrown dice still skittering, a new world  imperceptibly poised in its own making?

No more Camus: “Il faut imaginer l’esclave heureux.”

No more Shakespearean tragedy: Down in the kitchen, the cooking staff are preparing the next nutrition break. As the cauldron boils and bubbles, three old monkey witches dance around the pot and polish that bright red poisoned apple.

No more annual reports: Monkey is not übermenschen, nor is he untermenschen, either. He thinks of himself as honorable mention, not a whole chapter in the book, but rather an interesting footnote to one of those less important pages that abound in local histories.

No more kowtowing to a vacant authority: “Yadda, yadda, yaddathree bags  full … and a fig for the frigging king beneath my frigging cloak.”

No more drugs: The bartender measures poison and monkey slips it skillfully into his veins.

No more avoiding direct questions: When asked where he grew up Monkey will now say “I don’t think I have.” When asked what he did for a living, Monkey will now say“I no longer know.”

There’s nothing more to say. The jacuzzi whirs on and on and Monkey continues his voyage serenaded by the buzzing of the bees as he walks past  the cigarette trees on his way to the soda water fountain.

Wednesday’s Workshop: News & Reviews


Wednesday’s Workshop
News and Reviews

Tuesday evening began with John and Roger discussing the editing process. How easy it is to see the motes in another writer’s eye while failing to suspect the beams in our own.

Avoid the passive:
It is easier said than done. For those trained in academia and / or the scientific mode, the removal of the author and the insertion of the neutral and objective observer is de rigeur. John, a scientist, and Roger, an academic, share the same problems. We each use our editing tweezers to remove those motes from each others eyes, and wow, do we need help. We share our work by e-mail and the comments help us focus and revise. We are not Beta readers or editors in the full sense of the world, but we work well together and that is what matters.


Find a good and trustworthy reader who will tell you the truth about your writing. The search for objectivity in a critical review is essential: if you find a good reader, treat them to all good things and don’t let them go.


Chuck is currently the Atlantic Provinces Representative for The Writers Union of Canada (TWUC). When he arrived (late, but just in time for his third of the ginger cookie) he told us of the meetings he was setting up for TWUC members across Atlantic Canada. Hopefully, there will be two in New Brunswick. More details will emerge later.

New Novel:

Chuck then continued talking about his new novel. We have discussed the plot of it before and were interested in how he had developed it. Changes are on the way, and as more problems are set, so more and different solutions emerge. The plot is intricate and convoluted and Donovan, Chuck’s main character, continues in his search to aid the underdogs in their fight to achieve justice.

New Beginnings:

Both Chuck and John bemoaned the fact that they need to write more introductory chapters to what were their previous introductory chapters. “I wrote this chapter to explain what was happening in the novel and now I need another chapter to explain what’s happening in this one.” JINX as my daughter used to say, crossing her fingers, and JINXED they are to write more and more introductions thus front-end-loading their plots. In Chuck’s case, he started at the front and worked forward; in John’s case he started at the back and wrote backwards … Chuck is now writing backwards too … ours not to reason why …

Computer Tracking:

The late, and unexpected, arrival of Kevin, our computer expert, (who did not get a portion of the weekly ginger cookie) led us straight into a discussion of the many programs available for tracking plot and character. Kevin believes strongly in this style of writing: think and plan it all out and log it all into a computer program. John and Chuck believe their characters need freedom to challenge the author, to develop, and to change their minds. Roger reminded them of Unamuno’s novel [novela / nívola] Niebla in which a character doesn’t like his fate in the story and travels to Salamanca to tell Don Miguel de Unamuno not to kill him off, as he plans. Some critics think Niebla is a very poor novel, as characters cross the space between fiction and the real world. Unamuno’s answer is legendary: “I am not writing a novel / novela,” he replied. “I’m writing a nivel / nívola. Niebla is a perfectly good nívola.”


Two new books were presented to the group, Monkey Temple (Roger Moore) and The Caroline (John K. Sutherland). These circulated and one anonymous member of the group received autographed copies.


Both books are available via Amazon and Kindle. They need both reviewers and purchasers. But this is the old egg and chicken: do you purchase the book and then review it or do you review it (based on the Beta reading you have done) and then purchase it? This is a thorny question and one we left for another discussion, along with the major question — how do we get genuine and honest reviewers for our books?

In conclusion:

We concluded with the reminder that the Fall meeting of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick (WFNB — we are all members) is already scheduled. If we are planning to go, we must hurry to sign up … so this is a reminder to do so. Before we concluded we agreed that a table in the Christmas Craft Fair or at the Local Farmer’s market, at which we offer our books for sale, might be a very good idea. We can certainly do this at the WFNB. But with four of us now starting to publish, a concerted effort at marketing, reviewing, and selling is most certainly needed.

Valid and reasonable suggestions on how to do this would be welcome.

Winning not Whining!

Winning not Whining:
For Al

To be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Judgement by Committee:


The committee gathers and sorts through the evidence: whatever will they find? Piece by piece, they sift the data. Some take it to great heights and drop it on the rocks to see how fragile it is. Will it break like a clam or a mussel released at the sea-side? Others use the Christmas Cracker technique. For this you need two judges: each holds an end, and both tug as hard as they can. When the evidence rips apart, then the opinion of the one with the larger segment of the manuscript holds good. They take care to avoid the cracker-jack bang in case the item is explosive, but more often than not it is good, solid fodder for thought, endless thought, and the longer they think, the more the liquids flow and more good food goes down, and the more their camaraderie strengthens. Finally, when all the energy is spent and the manuscripts are reduced to tiny shreds, a winner appears. If the last fragment of evidence is still large enough to be read, this is then showcased and the winner is announced. That is why those precious manuscripts are never returned and that’s why competitors should always send a copy, because the original, especially when dropped from a great height or caught by the explosion of cracker-jack, might be lost in the tidal wave of anguish that sweeps the sea-shore clean.

“What is the definition of a camel?”
“It’s a horse designed by a committee.”

Anonymous, or Aristotle, I don’t know who said it first; but it’s very true. And manuscript selection by committee can bring about some interesting selections. On several occasions I have received the damning note: “We really liked this: but one person on the committee said they didn’t like how you used this word …    (insert word in blank space after dots).”
Judgement by committee is judgement by consensus … and, as the TV game-show host so often repeats: “… And the survey says …”

There is only one way to deal with committee decisions in a writing competition: lots of laughter, a large pinch of salt, and water off a duck’s back.

Judgement by a single judge

This is probably much better than judgement by a married judge who will always pick his partner’s work, if it has been submitted. With only one judge circumstances change and the chances of winning operate under different rules. Imagine that one judge as a Great Blue Heron standing in tidal water, beak poised, incoming tide, and the manuscripts swimming past. Some swim too fast, some too slow; some are too heavy and sink to the bottom; some are too light and float to the top. But look, the judge is tense, the perfect manuscript at the perfect depth glistens silver beneath the surface then … swift jab of the judge’s beak and we have a winner … and the judge holds it aloft to glisten in the sunlight while the losers swim happily away to survive as honorable mentions or silent witnesses that can be entered in another competition on another, perhaps happier day, when they can be judged by a committee of Great Blue Herons.


It’s not always easy to be a good loser. However, as you swim freely away from the Great Blue Heron (GBH) remember you have avoided Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) and that may be better than you think for: “It’s often good to not be a winner: you might end up as the judge’s dinner.”

And if you win? IMG_0130.JPG

And if you win? Well, the judge (or the judges if you survived the survey), was very good, very intelligent, very hard-working, and just perfect; in fact, the very model of a wise old bird who knew just what it was looking for, and found it.

And as for the winner: “The winner, he was a wise old bird. The more he spoke, the less he heard. The less he spoke, the more he heard. There never was such a wise old bird.” (Anonymous or Aristotle)