Does my short story need a structure?

road-368719_640When I first began writing, I had great ideas for characters, settings, and situations.  What I had were some of the elements of a story.  I wrote my ideas down and published them to a couple of the writing-sharing websites that I mentioned in a previous post.  They got a handful of reads, which was good.  I was pleased, but I wanted something more: publication in an online webzine, ultimately, publication in something that would pay me actual money – not much money, but the way I figured it, if I would be receiving royalties, my stories must have met a certain minimum standard, right?

When I started submitting to online publishers, the rejections started to roll in.  This was a kick in the teeth, because I was good, right?  My ideas were clever, situations were unique.  This would be a walk in the park.  Not so much.

The rejections continued coming in and I was becoming more and more frustrated with writing, and I was closing in on just giving up.  I had spent a lot of time reading articles on writing and especially on writing short stories.  It seemed that there was a universally accepted structure to writing short stories.  I knew it, but didn’t follow it.

Could it really be as simple as following the structure from A to B then C?  I was sceptical, but as a final offering, I would write a story following the structure to the letter and see where that got me.  Well the first short story I completed following that structure was accepted.  Motivated by this small success, I immediately submitted a second story, going back to my old way of writing.  Surprise, surprise, it was rejected, so I submitted a second story following the accepted structure, and it was accepted.  You can find these two stories at Alfie Dog Fiction – they are ‘Into the Scar’ and “The Island.’  Links to both are in the published menu above.

Ok, so I’m convinced.

So what does this story structure look like?

There are several versions of this available on the internet, the magic Google button can take you to them.  But I have put together my version, along with a brief explanation, that will hopefully make it understandable to even the newest of writers.  Gustav Freytag is credited with devising a structure for the plot elements of a short story:

short story

What the hell is exposition, and why do I need to know about it?

I’m sure you know what exposition is, but if you don’t, then you will certainly have experienced it.  Exposition is providing the background information needed to understand the characters and the settings.

Exposition can be delivered in several ways:

Through conflict

You are literally jumping into the story in the middle of the action.  You are revealing a problem that is faced by your main character.  It’s the hook that keeps people reading beyond the first line: why are they in that situation, how will they resolve it?

Through dialogue

Sometimes having to explain your setting or situation through narration might feel a bit forced or wordy.  In a short story, each of your words is important, so finding a better way to deliver information would be preferable, which is where dialogue can help.  Not only can you reveal information about the situation through dialogue, you can also reveal aspects of your main character’s personality.  A two-for one, if you like.

Through thoughts

Useful if your character’s state of mind is a major plot point in your story.  Start out with ‘what are they thinking?’ or ‘what are they feeling?’

Through Character

Give us an introduction to your character.  Give us a glimpse of what they are like.  Scared?  Brave?  Thoughtful? Insensitive?  Make us want to learn more about this person.

Through Narration

Give some key facts.  It is an easy way of delivering the current state-of-play.  Be aware, however, that writing a prologue (the events that lead us to where we are now) is generally a no-no for short stories; just drop us into the action!

Through letters, diary entries, etc.

Newspaper clipping-type entries can reveal a lot of information in a short space.  I have found that when submitting work, many online magazines will state ‘no storytelling through diary-type entries,’ so be sure to check, or be frugal with your use of this type of storytelling.


Give us an idea of who your characters are – names, traits, qualities.

Give us an idea of where they are or what’s happening / going to happen.

For short stories, keep you exposition as short as possible.  You don’t need to describe everything, leave some of it up to the reader!  Next time: Action!




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