Last week, I had an interesting conversation with a sophomore. She felt like she had a great character for a short story, but she couldn’t “fit” her character into what she thought was the “mandatory” story structure of a character having a goal, facing obstacles and conflict, and then either achieving or failing to achieve their goal.
I asked in a short story, did her character have to have a goal? We thought of quite a few stories in which characters didn’t particularly have “goals,” but they did face some sort of problem or underwent moments of transformation.
This means that the classic short story plot structure with the main steps that you’ve probably seen in your English classes: introduction/exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution doesn’t “fit” every story idea.
For example, in the classic story “The Story of an Hour,” Louise Mallard thinks her husband has died, has an emotional response, finds out he’s still alive, and then, ironically, she dies. Louise doesn’t have a goal here, but she does have a problem. The bulk of the story is her transformation into a widow which she embraces.
In our discussion, we came up with several short story “structures” based on all the short stories we could think of. I’m sure there are more, but we found these helpful. I’ve included links to the shortest short stories I could think of that fit each structure if you’d like models for your own writing.
1) Character has a goal/problem, faces obstacles and conflict, and fails to achieve their goal.
- “To build a Fire” Jack London
- “Popular Mechanics” by Raymond Carver
- “The Callers” by Marielle Murphy
2) Character has a goal/problem, faces obstacles and conflict, and succeeds in achieving their goal.
- “Freedom Gate” by Patricia Ljutic
3) A character changes in some way or learns something important. These are stories of transformation, where the character learns something, and usually what they learn is important and somehow surprising to the reader.
The BEST way to become familiar with great short stories is to read them. Most of the examples I’ve included would be considered short short stories, and this is the length that teen writers tend to write. They’re pretty quick reads.
One interesting thing to note is that four out seven stories included in this post include death. It’s a great topic for a short story – I’ll talk more about that in another post.