I used to be a “pantser,” writing by the seat of my pants, discovering the story sentence by sentence. Eventually, I would have a messy first draft that I could sift through to find the heart of the story, if there even was one. Then I would revise and revise and revise until it took shape. It was daunting. And for novels, it felt impossible.
Once I became a “plotter,” someone who outlines the plot of the novel before crafting that first sentence, my writing underwent a transformation. I learned quicker. I finished my work. Yet, I continued to see outlining as a novelist’s trick.
I’m here to tell you that outlining can be applied to any length of fiction, including the compressed form of a short story. In fact, plotting can help you surface problems with compression before you get started on your first draft.
Why outline a short story?
Unlike a novel, a short story is short enough to be drafted in one sitting. This means you can have an idea, sit down with pen and paper (or laptop), and scribble furiously until you reach the end. Then you can assess whether that mess of a draft contains a real story or not.
And this is precisely where outlining can be helpful. Before you invest precious time in drafting, outlining can:
- Test a premise to see if it works
- Highlight opportunities to constrain the elements of the story (characters, setting, time, etc.)
- Provide ideas for ratcheting up the conflict in the story
Imagine if you take a moment to sketch what will happen in your story before you begin writing. Your premise? A stepmother helps her young stepdaughter through her wedding day, though intriguing, lacks energy.
All popular stories require conflict, but looking at your story idea, you see that the two characters you had in mind couldn’t be in conflict. Or, in any case, you don’t want them to be. The main character’s stepmother acts as a mentor, guiding her through a difficult time. So, you introduce a third character, the biological mother.
Now you have an interesting character triangle, suggesting what their conflicting desires may be. The stepmother wants her stepdaughter’s day to be perfect. The biological mother resents the presence of the stepmother and wants her daughter for herself. The daughter wants everyone she loves to get along.
More questions arise as you look at this fleshed out premise.
What will happen between the characters? How do you distill the action and the setting, so they fit the short story form and don’t go rambling off into a novella or novel?
The three characters are in the daughter’s hotel room, you decide, waiting for the maid of honor and bride’s maids to arrive and help with the dress. Their presence will change the dynamic in the story, and so their scheduled arrival sets the clock ticking, naturally restricting the events of the story.
You decide you’d like a big, emotional moment to happen in the middle or right at the end of the story. How do you get the story to that point? You begin to sketch out the beats of the story, imagining at a high level what the stepmother, biological mother, and daughter will say and do to raise the tension to the breaking point. And so on.
By the time you’re ready to write, you know what your ingredients are and roughly where you want your story to go. How “roughly” is entirely up to you. Some writers outline in great detail; others create a very high-level sketch. And of course, once that first draft is over, you can change everything in revision. Though, you should find that you’ve already solved some problems ahead of writing. With outlining, the revision process is often shorter.
One big risk with simply putting pen to paper and seeing what happens is that the story might grow and grow and grow, and suddenly, you’re writing a novel. That’s fine if you’re open to writing a novel. But if your intention was to write a short story, you’ve hit a snag.
Knowing a bit about how the short story differs from the novel might help.
What makes a short story different from a novel?
Basically, a short story is short, and a novel is long. The length of a work of fiction changes what’s possible. A short story is usually no more than 7,500 words long. Longer, and it’s called a “novelette.” A novella is about 17,000 to 40,000 words. Anything beyond that is a novel.
Because of its length, a novel is roomy enough to make space for cast settings, intertwining subplots, and multiple viewpoints. Mostly, short stories focus on one plot and one point-of-view character within a restricted setting — often a single location.
The novel can also have a massive cast of characters. Short stories tend to stick to 2-3 rounded characters. Beyond that, the length necessarily grows into a novella to accommodate the characters.
A novel may delay exposition to create mystery. A short story almost always has to get exposition out of the way and move swiftly toward the premise of the story. If there is mystery, the premise itself contains the mystery.
“A great short story is about the fallout from one, shattering moment,” says James Scott Bell. But this might just as easily be the definition of a great novel. Here’s James Scott Bell’s definition of a shattering moment: “…the shattering moment is something that happens to a character, an emotional blast which they cannot ignore. It changes them, in a large or a subtle way…”
If we translate James Scott Bell’s “shattering moment” to “turning point,” then we come closer to a key difference. A novel usually contains several turning points — e.g., the catalyst, the midpoint, the dark night, the climax. But a short story zooms in on just one, in particular one that acts as an “emotional blast” which the character “cannot ignore.” That turning point may or may not occur in the story itself. More on that below.
Where to place the turning point
In How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career, James Scott Bell lists 5 placements for what he calls the “shattering moment” — or what I’ll call the “major turning point”:
The beginning of the story
- The story opens with a major turning point and the rest of the story focuses on the repercussions. This is the classic murder mystery story where the body is found on page 1 or even in the opening sentence.
The middle of the story
- The story builds to a big moment, then shows us the fallout from that moment. This approach can offer the story a kind of mini “act one.” The status quo is established, the catalyst disrupts it, and then the immediate impact of the catalyst plays out (within the strict confines of the short story’s limited cast and setting).
The end of the story
- The story builds to the big turning point at the end, providing an emotional climax or big reveal on the last page. If the intent is to shock the reader at the end with a surprising yet inevitable revelation — a twist — then this may be the most appropriate form.
Before the story begins
- The story deals with the aftermath of a life-altering event, with the impact rippling through the characters’ lives. Literary stories about grief may place the turning point before the action of the story.
After the story ends
- The story leads up to a life-altering event, implying what will happen after the final words of the story, and leaving it to the reader to imagine the impact this will have on the characters. The literary “epiphany” story sometimes relies on this format. The story rises to an emotional crescendo just before a character’s life may actually change. The reader may even sense the significance that still eludes the viewpoint character.
Can a story contain more than one turning point? Yes. For example, a traditional murder mystery short story will follow the same structure as a full murder mystery novel, condensing the plot into a few pages. For example, see “Death by Drowning,” a Miss Marple story by Agatha Christie. This begins with a murder, follows the investigation, and ends with the revelation of who the killer is.
How to become a better outliner and writer of short stories
The best way to become better at short stories is to read a lot of them. Since they’re short, you can get through many stories in a matter of days.
I recommend focusing on top practitioners or masters of the short story form. Anthologies are good for variety, like the annual “Best Short Stories: The O. Henry Prize Winners” or the “Best American Short Stories” series, which publishes fiction collections covering literary fiction, mysteries, and sci-fi/fantasy. You can also find free stories on publisher sites like Tor.com or Clarkesworld (look for publishers and journals covering your favorite genre). Plus, there’s Gutenberg.org, where you can get free public domain ebooks by classic short story authors, such as Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allan Poe, Katherine Mansfield, Oscar Wilde, and many more.
Here are three stories to get you started:
“The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield
“The Diamond Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
“The Dead” by James Joyce
Finally, I leave you with a recommendation: Write short stories. Even if your main ambition is to be a novelist, the short form forces you to develop focus and conciseness — skills that will make your novels strong, too.