First of all, I’ve been lucky enough to have two stories published in excellent magazines over the last couple of months:
1. CurioQueens in Constellary Tales
A story about a magical, deadly board game, romance, and addiction.
“The very first time I play, I am eleven. My parents are collectors and connoisseurs of magical artefacts, although 90 percent of these are completely inert. The latest one, however, is not.”
2. The Candle Queen in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
A story of magical wax, duty, and escape.
“The Candle Queen must always carry the sacred candles on her head; otherwise the world will end.”
I was also asked recently:
“I’m used to writing novels and have wanted to start writing short stories, but I’m having trouble structuring them. Do you have any tips?”
Sure, I do. Structure was probably the thing I struggled with the most when I first started to write short fiction professionally. A couple of my earliest stories, like Experience and Magnets, are basically just one scene, which allows for an extremely simple structure. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if it works for the story, and you may well want to try starting with this if you’re new to short fiction. The key thing to remember with this one-scene structure is that you still need to deliver a storyline rather than a vignette (which is more of a description of something than a story) for your readers.
The other thing that helped me with short story structure when I was a relatively new writer was writing fairy tales, both re-tellings and entirely new ones. By focusing on fairy tales it was easier to understand their particular structure as a sub-genre of short fiction. But more importantly, writing fairy tales made me learn to identify the plot elements that I already knew I wanted in a story, even if they were re-contexualised (e.g. Hansel & Gretel stumble across the witch’s house, the boy is locked in a cage, the witch burns) and the gaps inbetween where I had the freedom to stitch plot point A to plot point B however I saw fit.
These days I use two primary methods of structuring a story. The first is an evolution of the structure I tested while writing fairy tales, and involves working out the key ‘stepping stones’ or sections of the plot in advance. The easiest and most obvious way to do this is by having a beginning, a middle that’s broken up into ‘verses’, and an end. By ‘verses’ I mean that the entire middle works together as a ‘set’, like verses that share the same melody but use different lyrics. For example: Little Freedoms is set entirely within a competition, so the story is structured around the competition ‘phases’:
- Before the competition
- What happens in Phase 1
- What happens in Phase 2
- What happens in Phase 3, and so on…
- After the competition
Before I started writing Little Freedoms I had worked out the key ‘task’ involved in each phase, but I didn’t yet know how they would work out for the characters. As long as the story kept progressing to the next ‘stepping stone’ and I answered the story’s key question in a satisfying way, then the story would be fine.
Similary, when I was writing Strange Dancemates I had worked out in advance that I would largely focus on one of the ‘visitors’ at time, so the structure became:
- Before we focus on any of the visitors
- Visitor 1
- Visitor 2
- Visitor 3, etc. and then…
- After all of the visitors have left
One of my more recent stories, The Secret Death of Lane Islington, I wrote with all of its key plot points or ‘stepping stones’ in mind, but these points were more diverse and didn’t include any ‘verses’ in the middle.
I don’t always write with these ‘stepping stones’ worked out in advance. For other stories (such as CurioQueens and The Candle Queen that I mentioned at the start of this post) I simply start with a concept and an atmosphere and allow that to carry me through the first 600-700 words of the story. After that I will usually pause for at least a week while my subconcious works out ‘what happens next’, which might be as little as the next scene or as much as the entire rest of the story. I might not always be able to see very far ahead, but as long as I can continue to put one scene in front of the other, I can work (sometimes very slowly) through the whole story that way.
I don’t think that any particular way of structuring is better than another: what works for one story won’t necessarily work for the next one. But if you’re struggling with your short story structure, hopefully one or more of these structures or methods has provided some fuel for thought.