There’s a lot of information out there about planning your novel, but what if you’re writing a short story? Planning, choosing a short story structure, and researching are just as necessary, no matter the extension of your work.
Short-form writers also need to do some legwork before they sit down to write their stories. It’s just going to look a little different.
The problem is that most narrative structures only work for long-form fiction. How much of a hero’s journey can you include within 500 words?
But you can still use simple story structures to map out your micro-story.
In this blog post, you’ll learn why you need to plan your flash fiction and a useful, simple story structure for micro-stories to help you get started.
Why do short story writers need to plan and choose a short story structure?
I used to think it wasn’t necessary to know the ending of a story before getting started. Stories usually come to me as an idea, an episode, a phrase, or even a feeling, and I just take it from there. In a way, fiction writing has always been an exploration of unknown territories.
I used to think strict planning was for novelists, for writers with dozens of characters and intricate worlds to portray. How much planning does a 700-word story need, anyway? And maybe, deep down, I was afraid of falling into a research rabbit hole that’d derail me and suck my creative energy dry. The work should come later, I thought, during revision.
But then I tried to write a second part for one of my short stories.
I knew how I wanted this second part to end and the emotional impact I wanted it to have. I could see the scene so clearly in my head, but the previous story was getting in the way. When I held my short story to the scrutiny of a continuation, its shaky foundations collapsed.
A bit of planning would’ve made this story not just easier to write, but easier to expand. Even if you’re writing a 100-word story, taking the time to define the key elements of your piece will keep you focused, and give you enough elements to stay flexible in case you want to take that idea further in a longer piece.
Another advantage of planning your short stories is that they keep your research focused.
In a novel, you can spend months, even years researching, and most of that research will likely find itself in your writing in one way or another.
In short fiction, where every word counts, there’s just no room for too many details. Here, unnecessary details don’t just bog down your story writing — they take up space from crucial elements in your story.
With a simple story structure already in place, you can stay focused on your research to look up only the elements you’ll need.
Beat writer’s block
Working with a story structure template can juggle your creativity by forcing you to ask questions about your initial idea.
Who’s your character? Where are they? What decisions do they make?
Instead of sitting on your computer not knowing where to write, a structure can be a roadmap for you to develop short story ideas and overcome writer’s block.
How to plan your short stories
Choose a structure
You don’t need to be an expert in literary theory to be a writer, but getting familiar with the most popular narrative structures will definitely help you improve.
There are several structures you can use, but many don’t work that well with short stories. The shorter your story, the fewer options you’ll have.
Well, it’s not so much as choosing a structure, but consider how you want to move the action forward.
For example, in micro-story or flash fiction you probably won’t have room for all the steps in the classic Freytag’s pyramid.
What is important, however, is to make sure that there is some sort of structure — otherwise, your piece is a vignette, or a slice-of-life piece of writing focused on description and expression of emotion rather than plot and action.
There’s nothing wrong with vignettes — they can be fun exercises or crucial parts of your worldbuilding in longer stories, but they aren’t short stories.
The Story Circle — Does it work as a short story structure?
If your work is under 1,500 words, one of the most effective structures you can use is the Story Circle.
This narrative structure was created by screenwriter and producer Dan Harmon as an updated, streamlined version of the Hero’s Journey.
It comprises eight steps:
The first step is creating an engaging protagonist.
Now that you have the character, think of what drives them.
With a character and their main motivation, you can set them into action to get what they need.
Of course, the journey isn’t easy — there will be (or should be) roadblocks along the way.
On paper, your character has achieved what they needed, but something is missing.
When it becomes clear your character hasn’t actually got what they need, they’ll be tested — how far are they willing to go to get it?
After getting what they want, your character returns home.
But their journey has changed them. So even if the setting feels familiar, the character has changed and grown as a result of their ordeal.
Here’s a fascinating video of the structure applied to the film Interstellar
But what if you’re writing a micro-story? Do you still need planning?
The shorter the story gets, the harder it is to incorporate some of the basic elements of the short story. Planning makes it easier. To do this, you need to distil it to its most basic elements.
If your story is so short even the Story Circle is too lengthy, you’ll need to go back to the absolute basics — what do you need to make your piece a short story as opposed to a vignette, prose poetry, or a collection of ideas or descriptions?
The three Ws
Before you even start writing your story, you’ll need to define the three Ws — who, what, and where.
Every story starts with a character. But here’s the catch — the shorter the story, the fewer the characters you have room to include, and the more catchy they need to be.
Let’s develop a micro-story using these steps. For our story, the first idea I had is of a woman (who) in a cave (where), squeezing in small spaces, trying to reach someone she thinks is trapped inside (what). She’s the smallest in her group, so she was the only one who could go to the narrowest parts of the cave system.
Of course, I can’t use all of that in the story, but it’ll inform what happens next.
Defining the three Ws also tells you if you need to do research, and which details you’ll need to figure out.
In my story, it’s a dark, deep, partially unexplored cave. While the technical aspects of caving could help writing my story, what I’m more interested in is what it feels like.
Luckily, Youtube is full of people documenting their experiences. In my case, videos about caving were a great place to start.
Keep in mind that with such small room for details, it’s unlikely you’ll need to do in-depth research. Make sure to get just what you need or your story to avoid getting bogged down by unnecessary details.
With the three key elements on paper, the next step is to give your character a need.
A need or goal is what motivates your character to action, and informs your choices.
Our character gets into the cave to find someone she believes is trapped — she wants to get this man out.
If the need was easy to obtain, there wouldn’t be a story because it’d lack tension.
In this case, you could argue the obstacle is the setting itself, but could there be something else? Does she find something in the cave she needs to overcome to reach the trapped person?
What if she starts hearing more voices as if she’s hallucinating? Or maybe she has a panic attack in a particularly narrow stretch of the cave?
This is your chance to be creative and throw something that’ll hook your reader to get to the end. Again, with not much room to develop this obstacle, don’t be afraid of making it big, sudden, and surprising.
To keep the story simple, let’s say she has a recent injury that’s making her crawling inside the cave painful.
What does your character do to achieve their goal? What decisions do they make when they face an obstacle?
Think of a logical decision a person would make under those circumstances, and what best fit your character and the story you want to tell.
Inside a narrow cave, our character’s options are limited — she can quit and try to get back, or she can power through.
With not a lot of room to develop a climax and a resolution, the trick is to write an ending that suggests a resolution and aftermath.
You can totally leave it open-ended, as micro-fiction does lend itself to leaving enough space at the end for reader interpretation. But if you want to challenge yourself, try to close the story with a defined ending.
To finish our story, we’ll let our character find the man — but not in the way we expect. I decided to leave it more open-ended in this case.
After deciding on all these elements, you can start writing! You could even start getting inspiration during the planning stages. Make sure to jot down any ideas that come up while planning, but try to finish defining all the details before you start writing. You want to avoid researching while writing the same as editing.
Here’s the finished story, using all the elements discussed above:
The trapped man’s voice grew ever fainter, and she should’ve reached him by now. She winced as she crawled deeper inside the cave — her rib had still not healed, but no one else was lithe enough to squeeze inside the passage. Under her hand, a smooth rock stood out on the razor-sharp cave surface. But what she held up against the flashlight wasn’t rock — it was bone.
“Thank you for coming. I’ve been so lonely here,” the voice said, with newfound relief.
And there you have it! Spending a few minutes going through these elements will keep you focused on your story, and even help combat writer’s block.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to plan and structure your short stories, but I’ve found this is one of the easiest ways that actually work with flash fiction.
I’d love to know how it works for you. Share your experience in the comments below!
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Liked what you read? Here are other blog posts I think you’ll enjoy: Why this short story fan will never write a novel | The Pros and Cons of Writing Fanfiction: A Writer’s Perspective