Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Short Story Structure

This is also posted on Travels With Kaye.

Members of the Short Mystery Fiction list started a discussion recently about the structure of the short story. So much has been said and written about the structure of a novel, even whole books devoted to mystery, thriller, and suspense structure, but I hadn't ever paused to consider the structure of the short story before that.

But I'm sure all short story writers should!

The first posting gave the opinion that short stories have two forms: vignette and mini-novel. The vignette, Graham Powell contended, has its action in the same place and it all happens at the same time. The mini-novel would give room for more character and plot development.

Mark Troy gave his opinion that a vignette is an expanded scene/sequel combination with the sequel being the most important part. He considers them incomplete and not as effective as the other form. Although he says he wouldn't use the term mini-novel, saying any effective story of whatever length should have protagonist/antagonist, setting, theme, 3-act plot, conflict. He said he does something that I think I will start doing: he marks the places where the acts begin and end, and marks the crisis, where the antagonist appears, where the theme is stated. I would imagine I would have to give a story at least two readings to do all that!

Graham answered that he thought his definition of a vignette story might be a 1-act tale and the other a 3-act story.

Fleur Bradley chimed in with the opinion that the vignette are stories that are like a fly-on-the-wall experience for the reader. Almost like an overheard conversation.

Then Jack Hardway/Dan said there IS a conventional short story form that has five parts, although many mystery stories don't contain all five. They are found most often in literary stories. When asked, he gave these two references:
If you click on them, you'll see they both reference a Freytag Pyramid. The first states the five parts as exposition; complication and development; crisis or turning point; falling action; catastrophe. It goes on to talk about other structure points, too.

The second reference says the five parts are exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.

Wikipedia uses these latter terms for its illustration (I hope it's not illegal to copy wiki illustrations).

Then Chris Rhatigan posted this statement: A creative writing teacher explained another good five-part structuring technique for short stories similar to the one Jack discussed: 1) Action 2) Background 3) Development 4) Climax 5) Ending. One thing I like about it more--especially as a crime fiction writer--is that the reader gets dropped right in the middle of the story, then you get into the history of the characters, setting, etc. So in this case the piece would have two sets of rising and falling action.

I think I like this one best of all, at least for a mystery story. I'd love to hear from other short story writers and readers on this subject! Do you writers think you use any of the above structure devices? Do you readers see them?


  1. Hmm, That Freytag pyramid is used for novels too (along with the 3 act play). One thing about shorts is they don't mess with multiple subplots (like novels) mainly because there isn't enough space to neatly deal with subplots and the main plot. Plus shorts usually start right before the action and end right after, in other words they don't have as much set up time as a novel--of course there are no hard and fast rules on any of it so if it works, it works.

    Great post Kaye!

  2. The discussion we had on SMFS centered around some classic techniques... I wonder if anyone knows if there are some more modern structures.

    For example, one thing I've noticed is the short story that is driven almost solely by concealing something from the reader. This tends to work best in very short pieces. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn't.

  3. I also posted this on another blog and got a comment there from Sarah Glenn about the form used in the movie Memento (sp?). There, the ending/climax begins the story and the rest of the narrative fills how the characters got there, saving a final little mystery to reveal at the end.

    I'm not sure the modern novel, at least for a new writer, has time for set up. Get in late and leave early is always a good idea, in long or short fiction I think. This phrasing is Sandra Parshall's.

    But Chris, every form has to conceal something, otherwise the reader has no incentive to keep reading. I always contend that EVERY story is a mystery of some kind. That's, I guess, the way I define tension/suspense.

  4. I don't think you have to conceal anything in a story. If you give subtle hints of what's coming the reader will still keep reading, but won't feel duped when they reach an ending that looks like it came out of nowhere.

    Writers like Agatha Christie and Rex Stout were masters at doing this. You get to the end of a story, then think back and wonder why you didn't see all the clues. This makes for a much better story.

  5. Sandra, I didn't mean conceal that way. What I mean is that there must be something the reader wants to know. I think every good story contains a mystery, something for the reader to guess or figure out, or something to keep reading for.

  6. You're right, Kaye. I was thinking more along the lines of flash stories where some writers just dump you into an ending that wasn't forshadowed in some way. Flash twists are notorious for doing that and its so easy to just add a word or two that hints toward the ending.

  7. I hope I never cheat a reader like that, Sandra. I totally agree.

  8. I am on-board with you on that one Kaye and Sandra. After writing my last novel I went through it probably, in the neighborhood, twenty times before I caught a piece that would have ruined the conclusion for any deep reader.

  9. Thanks for weighing in, Robert. Glad you found the blog! And glad you caught the passage in your novel.