Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Short Story Structure

This is cross-posted on All Things Writing.

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. I've never studied the specific forms of the short story. I tend to think in term of whether they are 'satisfactory' or not. Now that I'm thinking about it, I don't believe I've seen many one-act stories I really liked, outside of flash fiction.

    I have seen some people play with these forms, putting the climax first and flashing back and forth in time so the reader learns what is going on. The TV show "The Good Guys" and the movie _Memento_ both used this device.

  2. I agree with your first paragraph, Sarah. I think of the short shorts as scenes rather than complete stories, I think.

    Good point about the 'backwards' stories! As long as there's something held back, some mystery, as to why the climax happened, and as long as it's not revealed or tied up until the very end. It would be fun to try to write one of those! I loved the movie.

  3. Useful post. And I find it most useful to think of my short stories as three acts, like a play or script.

  4. I'm so glad this is helpful, Conda! Happy writing.

  5. Your post is so helpful. All about story structure in only 515 words. Thank you.

    Now I'm going to try to submit this comment according to the new instructions.

  6. I'm glad you made it here, Kathy! Thanks for the comment.