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Basic Short Story Plot Structure

Short Story Secret IV:

Basic Short Story Plot Structure

Yeah, I know every one of you are smirking because you feel you already know this ~ or at least you think you do.

From what I see, reading through the hundreds of stories we receive each month at AlienSkin Magazine, many writers don’t.  You have a fairly good idea of what story structure is, but many of you fail to know how to build a chronologically solid plot structure for your story.

Some of the stories we receive are just base ideas that have not been fleshed out enough to offer enough conflict or complications for the main character to truly engage the reader and to maintain their interest until the end of the story.  They fail to see where dramatic scenes should occur.

If there are no Dramatic Scenes, the story wallows in ho-hum.  The writer receives a rejection letter. Hopefully, it will be a rejection letter hinting at what the story is lacking.  Such hints may be worded as "The story failed to maintain our interest" or "We feel the story needs work to heighten the tension and drama within the piece".  Those are two phrases we have used on our rejections letters from AlienSkin Magazine.

So let’s take a look at the standard plot structure of a chronological story as noted by Robert C. Meredith and John F. Fitzgerald in their article for The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing, entitled, Dramatizing Conflict in the Short Story.

Can you guess where the Big Scenes should occur?


1. Set the scene, giving a sense of where, when.
2. Introduce the main character or characters and establish
    the point of view.
3. Suggest in the tone and style of your writing what type of
    story the reader is reading (sci-fi, horror, fantasy, mystery,
    suspense, etc.)
4. Offer the background circumstances that eventually lead to
    the story’s main complication.
5. Trap the reader into reading the rest of the story with a
    narrative hook. Present a minor problem that later results
    in the main complication, or arouse an interest in the main
    character’s welfare.


1. Present the main complication.
2. Present a series of events in which the main character
    tries to solve his/her problem only to meet with failure.
3. Present a situation of anticlimax in which it appears the
    main character will finally resolve the main complication,
    then have his/her efforts end in a disastrous failure.
    Have the failure be so bad that the reader will become
    convinced there is no hope of a satisfactory solution.
4. Have the failure of Step 3 of the Middle force the main
    character to make an agonizing decision. Have the decision
    point to the solution of the main complication.


1. The solution of main complication happens here. The
    solution must be satisfactory and must be believable
    to the reader.  The main character must be changed
    in some way by the end of the story.

Now to find where the Big Scene/Dramatic Scenes should occur, we look for places within the above structure where two forces meet.

These places are primarily in the Middle, #1 - #4. There could even be one in the Beginning at #5.

In flash fiction, there would most often be one Big Scene. Thus, the whole Middle section would be squeeze into one dramatic scene.

Longer fiction, of 5,000 words or more, would have four dramatic scenes, those of the Middle.  You may even have five dramatic scenes.  If you did, you would utilize the last scene in the Beginning to give you the total of five scenes.

For stories in the mid-range of 2,000 to 3,500 words which we accept at AlienSkin, a tale would possess between 2-3 Big Scenes.

So if you guessed the Middle is where the Big Scenes and major action happens, you’re right!


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