What is the structure for a short story?

Lord of the Rings as a short storyI have been thinking about the monomyth for various reasons (eg in my reading) and how it can drive (in various forms) the creative process. Indeed it is used as a basis for some software tools such as New Novelist and Novel Factory (the second of which I mention in Software for Writing). I wondered how far the monomyth (or Hero’s Journey if you prefer) can be distilled down for short stories. This blog post gives my current thinking.

Short Stories

I’ve always enjoyed short stories. From the original Conan Doyle stories of Sherlock Holmes to the wealth of short stories in science-fiction I believe that, at their best, they are as good as anything.

How short is a short story? I think a novella (whatever we agree that is) must have the same structure as any full-length novel. What happens as the word count drops? Some of the best short stories I have ever read are a few thousand words. Some are even shorter. What happens as we approach a few hundred words, or a flash-fiction one or two hundred?

What happens when we get to micro-fiction? Tweet-fic (or whatever the term is)? Is a joke a short story – I’d argue it can be?

I wondered how the monomyth applied as a story shrinks – what aspects go away under pressure and what has to remain to make a story…

What makes a story?

Better thinkers than me have pointed out that any story probably has a beginning, a middle and an end. The shortest stories (certainly in science-fiction) tend to set the reader in a direction then twist the expectations at the end and leave the reader impressed at the author’s creativity. In this regard they can be very like jokes.

I think the minimum flow for a story is something like:

  • Set-up (which may be implicit). Give the reader the setting, some characters and establish a status quo
  • Disruption – something alters the status quo which gives the ‘hero’ a challenge. There may be a question as to what they should do or a choice
  • Action – the hero does something as a result of the disruption
  • Outcome – the conclusion of the action. The status quo may return, their may be a new status quo or the hero themselves evolves.

Isn’t that a bit like SCQA?

If you’ve seen my post Is SCQA the minimum structure for story-telling? you can guess where this is going. If not, why not read it now? Let me know when you’re back and I’ll carry on. Ready?

Situation – that’s the set-up

Complication – that’s the disruption

Question  – that equates to any choice the hero needs to make

Answer – that’s what happens next, ie the bulk of the story. In my terms this is action and outcome.

I suggest that this is a universal description which I will tie to some concrete examples. This will no doubt involve some sophistry, smoke and mirrors to make the facts fit my theory!

What do you think? Is this true in some deep sense or is it self-evident? Do let me know.


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