A short story answers a question—several questions, in fact. You set them up at the beginning to engage the readers' interest. The story itself is your promise that they will be answered, and the plot is the means by which the promise is fulfilled.
The first question is the most obvious: Will the protagonist get what she wants? You may bring in other questions as well, especially if the story concerns some sort of secret: Who done it? What's in the box? Where did the stranger come from?
There is another question, too, that is both larger and more subtle than these, the one that expresses the central issue of the story. This is the one that you as the author pose for yourself, whether consciously or unconsciously, as you sit down to write; the one you are writing the story to discover.
The central issue might double as the protagonist's goal, but it does not necessarily have to. In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge's goals are to keep making money at his business, to avoid disruptions in what he has convinced himself is a comfortable life, and, as the story progresses, to deal with those annoying ghosts. The central issue is more significant: Will Scrooge turn into a human being and come to realize the value of human connections and relationships?
The sense of closure that readers experience at the end of the story comes from having the central issue and its related questions resolved. This resolution is the destination the story must reach. All of the story elements function as signposts pointing both writer and readers in that direction.
It's not necessary to identify the central issue or to have any answers before you begin. Writing is a process of discovering the questions as much as it is about finding the answers, and that's a great part of its joy. But if a story is being elusive, try defining the central issue. That may be one way to grasp hold of it and push it forward.
By now you have assembled a number of questions, a handful of answers, some ideas about conflict, and a few characters whom you're beginning to know. You're eager to start putting everything down on the page. How do you take these bits and pieces, these threads and snippets, and fabricate them into a story?
Just as buildings, from sheds to skyscrapers, have certain parts in common—floors, walls, roofs—so do stories. Since classical times, writers have constructed stories using the same five basic parts. The diagram on page 81 provides a rough generic blueprint of a plot. The thick line represents the course of a story, showing how it progresses from beginning to end.
In architecture, a given part can take numerous forms. Think of the many available options for windows, from tiny leaded diamond panes to vast expanses of plate glass. A roof can be flat or steeply pitched, and covered with shingles or slates or thick grass thatch. The number, arrangement, and individual style of the parts are what give the building its distinctive character. In a similar way, the parts of a story lend themselves to infinite variation. The five parts are:
• Inciting incident. This is also sometimes called the exciting force. Whether inciting or exciting, it's what starts the ball rolling—the event that begins or intensifies the protagonist's predicament. This action sets up a situation that will need to be resolved and creates the opportunity for the conflict to occur.
• Complications. This is how you get your protagonist in trouble and worse trouble. Complications are the obstacles the protagonist faces, the turns of events that make reaching her goal more difficult. Remember that complications can spring from the characters' own actions—for instance, when they choose unwisely or when the results of their choices don't turn out as planned.
Complications arise throughout the story, up to the moment of climax. Notice that the line on the diagram rises for most of its length; this signifies the heightening of tension as the story proceeds and the complications accumulate.
• Crisis. We think of a crisis as being some sort of emergency, one that is likely to have a disastrous outcome if we don't take action quickly. That's not exactly the meaning in terms of story structure. In literature, a crisis is a decisive moment or event, a turning point. The Greek root, krisis, means "to separate"; the crisis separates what has gone before from what comes afterward. Often it marks a change, at least temporarily, in the fortunes of one or more characters. In screenwriting, the crisis is called a plot point—the point on which a story pivots as it spins in a new direction—which is perhaps a more helpful way to describe it.
A novel may have several major and minor plot points. A short story, though, generally has room for only one or two. In some stories the crisis and climax may be almost simultaneous.
• Climax. We have now reached the culminating event in our series of actions. On the diagram the rising line has reached its peak. The Greek word klimax means "ladder," and the story has been climbing to the point of its highest excitement and power—the confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. This is the moment when the hero's success or failure is determined once and for all. In the climax, the conflict is resolved and the answers to the principal questions raised by the story become clear.
• Denouement. This word is borrowed from the French; the root is denouer, "to untie." To the ancients, a story was a knot; its resolution meant that the knot was finally unraveled and whatever secrets or misunderstandings had been bound up in it were at last revealed. It is just as useful to reverse the metaphor; think of the denouement as the time to tie up loose ends and conclude the action.
As you can see on the diagram, the tension is finally falling. In today's literature, the tendency is to push the climax as close as possible to the end of story, then wrap things up quickly so as not to diminish the impact.
Was this article helpful?