Short story writing: plot, part 1
As with every other aspect of short story writing, under ideal circumstances you won't need any rules about plot, and won't need to analyse what you are doing. A story will just arrive in your mind and demand to be written. You won't need to plan it in advance, and as you work you will know how to shape and direct it simply by following your instinct. The whole process will happen of its own accord and you will be too busy writing to think about 'plot' or 'theme' or 'suspense' or anything like that.
The ability to work instinctively, without reference to guidelines, is our aim, but it rarely happens without the writer first having given at least a little analytical thought to what makes a good story work. Similarly the ability to see where a story-in-progress which has got stuck might be going wrong, and how to put it right should become instinctive, but is unlikely to do so without at least a glance at some guidelines.
The guidelines which follow, therefore, are not hard and fast rules, but aids to thought, both for the planning of stories, and for the diagnosis of problems in stories which have gone wrong.
An event in a person's life
The most important thing about a short story plot is that it should be about and event in a person's life. The reader is drawn into a story by identifying with the central character, and it is this identification which should hold his attention all the way through. A finished story may well have a general meaning, such as: 'love will find a way' or: 'appearances can be deceptive', but it is not practical to set out with the intention of creating a story to illustrate such a message. We must start with a person - a person facing some kind of predicament, and work out the story in those terms.
A unifying theme
But it is also important that a plot should have a unifying theme - a purpose, to hold it together.
If the plot is what happens in the story, the theme is what it means, what it is about; not in a general sense, but in terms of the specific struggle in which the central character is engaged. Without a theme a plot becomes episodic - A happens, then B happens, then C happens, etc. without a sense of purpose or direction.
The theme is the backbone of the story, and should form an unbroken link from the beginning to the end. If you are developing a story, and not sure where it should be going, a consideration of the opening, or the proposed ending should reveal the theme and help you pull it together.
The opening paragraphs of the story should establish a situation which is unstable, which contains within it the necessity for change, and the ending should show the results of that change, and the achievement of some form of stability. The nature of the initial instability should be mirrored in the finally achieved stability, and the connection between them is your theme. So you should be able to see the opening of your story reflected in its ending, and the ending reflected in the opening. If you cannot then the story hasn't yet gelled, and won't yet work.
In some cases you may not be able to define your theme in words, it may be just a feeling, and the story may well be an attempt to capture that feeling. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact it may be the way the best stories are conceived, but even if you can't define the theme you must have a sense of what it is. It must be there as the raison d'être of the story, giving it direction and holding it together.
The progress from opening to ending should be logical, but not straightforward. A simple situation of instability resolving into stability does not make a plot. A conflict between opposing forces is needed, and should be integral to the theme. The conflict can be between the central character and other characters, between the central character and his circumstances, or between conflicting desires within the central character.
The conflict does not have to be violent or arouse extreme passions, nor does its nature necessarily have to be obvious or clear-cut. It can be as subtle as you like, but it must be there, holding the reader in suspense.