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Short story writing: plot, part 2


Suspense does not mean we have to think in crude melodramatic terms - with someone's life being at stake, some injustice being done, or someone betraying someone else. It simply means the reader should be held in a state of anticipation, always feeling something is about to happen and always eager to find out what it will be. An economical style of writing plays an important part in this, but is not enough on its own. Whatever the nature of the ideas you are working with it is essential to establish a sense of forward momentum right from the start, and to keep up the pressure all the way through. Even the subtlest stories keep the reader wondering 'What will happen next?' A plot is about movement and change and, in however subtle a form, suspense.


A short story needs a simple structure. There is no room for the complex development of sub-plots we get in most novels, plays, and films. We are dealing with a single important event in a person's life. In my 'First principles' the list of six points gives a simple skeleton structure for a plot, and another useful way of thinking of structure is in terms of:

before - turning point - after

The turning point is a decisive action taken by the central character - before shows the circumstances leading up to that decision, and after shows the consequences.

When planning the shape of a story remember that we are not trying to reproduce life as it actually happens from day to day, but to distil a meaningful pattern from it. So the episodes should not be chosen to illustrate the way life really is, but to illustrate the key points in the pattern.

At the same time we know that the best stories feel as if they are real, and good writers achieve this by selecting just the right details from reality to stimulate the reader's imagination into constructing picture of the whole.

The Climax

At the climax of the story the conflicting forces which have given the story its energy since the opening come together and reach breaking point. Something falls away, or reverses, a decision is reached, and things are not as they were before. The circumstances which gave rise to the original instability no longer prevail. The central character's horizon has shifted and, at least for the moment, the way forward is clear.

Give your central character an active role.

A strong plot has the central character in an active role - he does something to try and resolve the conflict. It is never enough just to have the central character in a passive role, as a victim of circumstances beyond his control.

I would suggest that the pattern of the central character's action and its outcome could follow one of two fundamental courses:

1) The central character struggles against limitations, and makes a breakthrough towards fulfilment.

2) The central character struggles against limitations, fails, and changes direction.


Your initial conception of a story will almost certainly come complete with the setting. The setting is the world where the characters live, and will reveal itself as they move through it. It rarely needs much consideration on its own. A setting may well inspire a plot, and be an important element in the story, but it is never a substitute for a plot. It is people, their actions and their feelings which make a story.


In conclusion, some important points to remember in constructing a good plot are:

1) Make sure you are starting with a person, and not an idea.

2) Make sure you have a clear understanding, or clear feeling, of what your theme is.

3) Keep the theme in your mind right from the beginning, and only bring in episodes which contribute directly to it, and move the story towards its resolution.

4) In the selection of specific incidents and details adapt reality to fit the story, not the other way round.

< Plot part 1

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