Writing Tip #25: Do Short Stories Have to Have a Plot?

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Do Short Stories Have to Have a Plot?

The short answer is yes! Short stories need to have a plot. But of course we all know it’s a very different thing to craft a short story than a novel - whether or not we have even attempted to write a longer work.

Last week we talked about "plotters and pantsers." Regardless of whether you are a plotter or pantser, your story still needs to have a plot, or at a minimum some essential elements that create the drama, get your reader involved, and resolve the drama or conflict.

Let's talk about plot in the context of the short story.

What’s the Deal with Short Story Plots?

When talking about the mechanics and structure of a short story, we tend to talk more about story arc than about plot. The reason for this is that no matter what, your story must include an arc to be effective and to leave the reader satisfied that the time it took to open and read your story (vs. the thousand other things he or she may have chosen instead) was worth the journey.

And that parenthetical statement above is actually really important. People are busy, distracted, presented with numerous attention-grabbing online amusements at any given moment, and these days we are just not all that patient.

So we want things that fuel and engage our minds, but we don’t really want to have to do a lot of hard work to sort through muddy character descriptions, unfocused narrative, lack of story progression, or the dull thud that happens at the end of a story that did not resolve a conflict or transform a character.

We must have conflict and character transformation. These are the essence of plot in a short story. How you get there is another thing altogether.

Template for Plotting a Short Story Plot

There are many online resources for plotting short stories, and I’m going to provide a list of further reading so you can peruse them to your heart’s content. Reading about the craft of writing is an inspirational endeavor - or certainly should be - but you can read about writing all day long and not get words on paper.

My aim here is to inspire you.

So I’m going to do something slightly unorthodox and provide a template to help you in developing an underlying plot for future stories.

Here’s something to try. Write these down on a piece of paper, or in an online file - wherever you prefer to write. These are starter lists. You can use them, add to them, make your own, etc.

1.My main character is [Fill in the blank]:

  • An old man
  • A young girl
  • A street vendor
  • A police officer
  • A rich yacht owner
  • A grieving man
  • An unhappy woman
  • A bartender
  • A musician

2.My character’s problem at this very moment is that he or she is [Fill in the blank]:

  • Unable to recover from a loss
  • Disturbed by something seen by moonlight
  • Unsure of the meaning of life
  • Worried his or her spouse is having an affair
  • Trying to return to his or her homeland before dying
  • Suffering from Covid-19
  • Living on the street
  • Fearful that there is going to be an alien invasion

3.My character is currently living with, encountering or at odds with his or her [Fill in the blank]:

  • Best friend
  • Spouse
  • Neighbor
  • Ex best friend
  • Ex spouse
  • Mother-in-law
  • High school fling
  • Baby

4.The number one thing preventing my character from solving his or her problem is [Fill in the blank]:

  • A painful skin condition
  • Alcoholism
  • Fear of ghosts
  • The weather
  • Lack of money
  • Other’s people’s irritating opinions
  • The car is out of gas
  • A hurricane is coming

Okay, now you’re equipped with everything you need to develop your short story plot: A main character (protagonist) with a problem or desire, a secondary character (possibly antagonist), the problem your character must overcome or come to terms with, and the seemingly insurmountable obstacle to doing so.

The elements can be strong in your story, or they can be appear as aspects of the overall story you want to write, but they can fuel the theme, the writing and the energy of your story. To get from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the end), you can weave in one or more characters, show us through action and dialog how the character is dealing with the problem, the people and the obstacles, and most importantly, write a pivotal scene that is the pinnacle of your story arc, then resolve the story's conflict.

Resources for Further Reading

Here are some resources for learning more about plot in short stories:

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Writing Tip #10: Don’t Start a Story This Way!

Writing Tip #11: What Is “Writing Voice”?

Writing Tip #12: Reveal Everything and Nothing

Writing Tip #13: Character Types in Fiction

Writing Tip #14: Clichés - Avoid the Conspiratorial Wink

Writing Tip #15: Developing Memorable Characters

Writing Tip #16: Writing Character Descriptions

Writing Tip #17: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writing Tip #18: Don’t Be a Copycat (Plagiarism is Wrong)

Writing Tip #19: Hook Your Readers

Writing Tip #20: Lessons in Tense Part 1

Writing Tip #21: Editing Your Work with Fresh Eyes

Writing Tip #22: We want to hear from you! What do you want to know?

Writing Tip #23: The Value of Workshops and Feedback

Writing Tip #24: What Are Plotters and Pantsers?

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