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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. I've published a few articles on what makes a story, and it's significant that one of them was titled (in a nod to Apollo 13) "Failure is not an option. It's a requirement!" Yes, you have to engineer a big fall for your characters.

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 (and Novels*):
    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)

*Novels! While I talk about this being structure for a short story, it is key for novels as well! In a novel, steps 4 and 5 in the middle happen multiple times. From two or three attempts to ten or more! The key here is progression: each attempt has worse repurcussions. Like, 1st time the work friends laugh at the character, 2nd the boss gives them a warning, 3rd the character is fired, 4th they break their arm, 5th their spouse almost dies...

TheTake-Away: 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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Rev 2021-December-10