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Structuring the Short Story

(From a workshop by Kristine Katharine Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith based on a series of workshops by Damon Knight)

This outline is the most concise way I've found to give writers a clue on what makes a story. Too often, beginning writers come up with clever dialog, or a character study, or a mood piece. Those have their place as part of a good story, but are (usually) not a story by themselves.

Lest you feel constricted by this advice, please note: start by writing your story as your muse moves you. Just let it flow! This outline is more of a guide on story structure and should be used to analyze and diagnose problems after your story is finished.

Seven-Point Plot Outline for Genre Short Stories:
    The Beginning

  1. Character -- someone the reader can experience the story through

  2. Conflict/problem (the "collision idea") -- the presenting problem in the story is not always the true conflict of the story, but it works best if it's related somehow.

  3. Setting (where most newbie writers are very weak)

    The Middle

  4. Character tries to solve the problem

  5. Character must fail (not for stupid reasons, though) and things must get worse (even better if the well-meaning actions of the character make it worse)--this is the most common plot development that beginners miss.

    The End

  6. Climax - character tries to solve the problem again (and either fails or succeeds--either outcome is valid)

  7. Validation (shows that the story is over)
--Writers can violate these rules only if they're very good writers and know what the rules are that they're breaking. Mainstream short stories will often have no beginning and no end (or, they're implied), but these 7 points are almost mandatory with genre stories.

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Art and Contents Copyright 2001-2004+ by Wendy Wheeler. All rights reserved. Do not copy or reprint without my permission. Rev 2004-April-12