There are countless ways of telling a story. One author might begin the story at the beginning, another might start at the end and work backwards.
An author must make various decisions about how to structure a story, including where the story starts and ends, the order in which story elements are revealed, the amount of detail or summary about each element, and the pace of each section of the story.
Traditional story structure follows this pattern:
- a situation is introduced
- the situation becomes complicated in some way (often involving a confrontation of some kind)
- the complication is resolved.
Traditional stories usually move chronologically from beginning to climax to end. However, sometimes it is necessary to prepare the reader for what is to come, to help them to remember what has already been revealed, or to give extra information about character or plot that is outside the time frame of the story. There are structural devices for arranging time within your story that can help you do this.
Foreshadowing helps to build suspense, and prepare the reader for things that will happen in the future. For example, if the loss of a dog will cause conflict between two characters in the story, it is more realistic to mention the dog earlier in the story than to make it appear only when you need it.
In a flashback, a character remembers something from the past that is essential to the story in the present. Some stories that open with a climactic event, such as murder, will be almost entirely in flashback as the author goes back to explain how the protagonist reached this point. In a short story of 3,000 words or less, flashbacks should be used sparingly, if at all.
Sequence of events
The most logical way of telling a story is from beginning to end, but this may not necessarily be the most effective way. A story told by a first person narrator, for example, might move backwards and forwards in time as would a story told be a real person. It takes a great deal of skill to carry off this kind of structure because a reader can easily become confused about time.
Detail and summary
If you were to tell a story and give equal weight to every part of the story, it would become very boring. Even when telling an anecdote to a friend, we gloss over certain aspects and emphasise others. This is a structural manipulation of the story in order to bring out the most important events. A character’s work and place of residence may be summarized in a line or two but the character’s obsession with plastic flowers may be described in sensuous detail. The love of plastic flowers, then , is obviously an important element of the story that the author wants the reader to think about.
You will have noticed that some parts of short stories race along, encouraging the reader to find out what happens next, while other parts are slower and allow the reader time to contemplate the story. The pacing of the story is controlled by the choice of words, the length of sentences and the content of the passage. Pacing your short story is an essential part of controlling the narrative so that the reader is drawn along without feeling either hurried or bored.
A causal chain
Plot can be most easily recognised in genre novels and stories whose sole aim is to keep the reader entertained, thrilled or terrified. You can, therefore, think of the traditional plot as a series of causally related events, involving some sort of conflict (or tension) and leading to a climax and a resolution. The danger of the conventional plot is that it can become so contrived and unlike real life that it strains the credulity of the reader beyond endurance.
To avoid the contrived and un‑lifelike plot and at the same time maintain forward movement, the writer should put aside any preconceived notions of ‘plot’ and put more effort into understanding and exploring character. You will discover that a thoroughly thought out and well conceived character will practically provide a plot for you as the story develops. All you need is for your main character to have either:
- a goal in mind
- a conflict to hand that must be resolved.
Even in stories where plot is less important than other elements you need to consider its demands. If you have set yourself the goal of doing away with plot altogether, you are not likely to succeed unless you first examine carefully what it is that plot has satisfied in the reader and then consider inventing something new that satisfies the same need – as several fine contemporary writings are doing.
Questions about plot
The following questions could be asked about plot – when you have reached at least the first draft stage of your story.
- Whose story is it? Whom do you most care about? Why?
- Does your main character have a purpose or a goal that is specific enough or immediate enough for the reader to care?
- Once the character sets out after this goal, are there obstacles that get in the way, causing a struggle? Is there conflict (internal or external) as the result of this opposition? Does this conflict create tension? (Do you care which way it turns out?)
- What is at stake here? If ‘nothing much’ is the answer, the reader is likely to be much less interested than you are.
- Is there some kind of causal relationship between each event and the next? If not, is it clear that the character is in the grip of indifferent meaningless ‘fate’, or a victim of someone or something else’s deeds?
- When the story reaches the point where it has to work out one way or the other, have you paused and looked back over the whole story to see what seem to be the strongest forces in the character and in the events? Does the way it works out seem almost inevitable, once you look back and see all that has led to it (it should). Yet has it avoided being totally predictable? If it is predictable, have you treated it in a fresh way? Has the story encouraged the reader to be involved in this most important scene?
- Once you have passed the ‘point of no return’ how fast can you end the story without losing something of importance?
- When you consider this character you know so well, and the experiences he or she has been through, do you know what it means – to the character? To you?
- Has every step of the plot also contributed something to the development of the character?
- If your story does not conform to any of the above expectations, are you confident your scheme will make readers care about your protagonist, carry readers on the story’s emotional journey, and reward readers with insight, pleasure and satisfaction?
This checklist may initially seem daunting, but it will be useful and relevant when you are tackling stories of 3000 words or more.
There are two approaches to handling plot in literary fiction.
- The writer designs a plot before creating characters to fit into it.
- The writer creates characters first and allows them to work through the story, thus providing the plot.
Fine fiction has resulted from both these processes.
What established writers have to say
Well, I usually have one firm character, perhaps two, and an underlying theme – certainly a situation. And from then on, if it works at all, the characters shape the plot rather than the other way round.
Jessica Anderson, Yacker 2
John Cheever, The Writer’s Chapbook
Frank O’Connor, The Lovely Voice
Maurice Gee, In the Same Room
The quote that works for me is this one:
Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing