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Does a Short Story Have a Three-Act Structure?

How does writing a short story differ from writing a novel?

Teddy posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Does a short story have the same three act structure (three disasters, plus climax)as a novel?

Randy sez: A short story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, like a novel. However, you simply don’t have the space to build up to three major disasters and then work through a full-resolution ending, as you would in a novel.

I’m no master of the art of short story writing, but I’d say that you have a lot more latitude for structuring a short story than you do with a novel. As you go up the length scale for short stories, you’ll have room to put in more of the large-scale features of a novel.

However, the lowest level structure of the story (what Dwight Swain calls “Motivation-Reaction Units” — MRUs for short) is identical in a short story and in a novel. The reason is that this is where you “show, don’t tell.” And you only have a very few tools for “showing” — Action, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, Interior Emotion, and Description. Those tools are the same, whether you’re writing short or writing long.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Using the Snowflake Method on Short Stories

Can you use the Snowflake method of writing a novel to help you write a short story?

I’m fully recovered from the ACFW conference and am now ready to resume blogging at the usual pace.

Chuck posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve been a lurker here for quite a while. I have over the last couple of years purchased your Fiction 101, and 102 series (Excellent investment, btw!)

My question is with short stories and the Snowflake Method. How would you suggest scaling back the Snowflake process to fit short story writing.

Randy sez: The Snowflake method is designed to help you manage the complexity of a novel, which typically runs from 60,000 words on up to maybe 250,000 words. A short story will typically run a couple of thousand words. So we’re talking about managing something that is 30 to 100 times smaller than a novel.

I’d say that you still want to do a one-sentency Storyline that defines your short story. (You’ll need this in your submission letter, so you might as well write it sooner rather than later.)

You probably also will want to write a one-paragraph summary, since that lays out your Three-Act Structure. Story is story, whether it’s long or short. Goldilocks and the Three Bears has a very clear structure based on threes which is useful to study for short stories.

I also think you’ll want to work out your characters’ Goals, Motivations, and Values, along with their Storylines.

I don’t see any need to write a synopsis for a short story. Nor do you need to spend a lot of time developing the characters’ backstories. A short story is really too short to have much in the way of backstory. You’re too busy trying to squeeze in the frontstory to care much about backstory.

Nor do you really need a scene list. (If you write one, it’ll be very short, and will probably just restate what’s in the one-paragraph summary.)

If you use the Snowflake method for a short story, you really ought to be able to do it all in an hour or two, and it will guide your thinking.

I don’t write many short stories, and I usually just think about them for a bit and then write them using that pesky seat-of-the-pants method. But I see no reason not to use some of the core ideas of the Snowflake — as long as you’re not using the method as a way to avoid writing the actual story.

At the end of the day, you get paid for writing the story, not for designing it. The design is an aid to you in getting the story written faster and better. If it doesn’t do that for you, then skip the design and go straight to the writing.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.