Monday, 4 June 2012

Kick Start Your Short Story

Guest post by award-winning Australian novelist and short story writer Wendy Laharnar

What is a short story compared to a Novella or Novel?

A short story has between 1,000 and 10,000 words. The amount depends on the publisher’s requirements. It concerns one episode, only, revealed in a series of events with a climax and, preferably, no more than three main characters. It covers a short time span and has a single purpose.

The novella and novel, on the other hand, have multiple characters and episodes and cover whatever time it takes to tell the story in as many words as necessary. Therefore, I think the short story is closer to the poem where every word must count to create atmosphere, evoke a specific emotion and drive the message home with limited words, unless you are Virgil or Dante, of course, with their epic, novel length poetry.

The Short Story Framework

*The short story has three types of Framework.

The five-tier plot:
1. A recognizable type of Character is driven by
2. A specific Motive or Desire leading to
3. A Central Situation which gives rise to
4. Unexpected Complications {including the dark moment) - demanding in turn
5. A rational yet surprising solution or outcome.
This framework fits all genres of strongly plotted short stories and suits traditional magazine stories.

The three-tier plot:
1.Situation which brings out the winning streak in
2.A specific Character type who seeks about devising
3.A Solution

Revolves around the character and his problem rather than a series of surprises. This can be a character driven plot or one which takes an ordinary event and uses it to create an extraordinary story.

The two-tier plot:
1.A certain type
2. Explores a Situation.

The most difficult to write. It's a literary or plotless story of the type written by Chekhov. Through it, the talented author enriches the reader’s mind with a virtuoso display of narrative and dialogue. A less talented author might wallow in self pity and introspection.

So, with all this in mind, you can sit in front of a blank screen, like I did when writing Of Actors and Action, begin with stream of consciousness and keep typing until a brilliant idea takes over, and you are able to frame your story. In this case I chose the five-tier framework

Or develop an idea that fascinates you. With my sci-fi Happiness Guaranteed, I’d read about the discovery of an ancestral memory gene and combined this idea with my passion for Formula 1. The story tried to take over, but I contained it to one episode in Bianca’s ideal life, again using the five-tier frame.                       .

Or, begin with your episode clearly in mind, and choose the type of characters and their motivation best suited to deliver your purpose. I used this method in Billy the Bonsai Bull, using the three-tiered framework.

The Three Tier Framework

Let's take a closer look at the three-tier framework:

For Billy’s story of 6,500 words, I chose a troublesome episode from real life: raising an orphaned calf that had lost the will to survive. It spanned twelve months in Billy’s life.

My purpose: to prevent bullying - loneliness and false friends can stunt our emotional and physical growth, whereas true friends help us thrive, therefore children should not tolerate a bully nor be tempted to bully others.

Situation: A calf wants to lie down and die and the farmer’s wife is determined to save him. This brings out a winning streak in both

Character types: a stubborn orphaned calf and a compassionate but frustrated farmer’s wife. By presenting the story from Billy’s pov, children might glimpse some aspect of their own experience and empathize with Billy. Although it is the farmer’s wife who seeks to devise the solution, Billy had to respond to it.
Solution: Acceptance. Billy learns to accept genuine friends and stick with them even if they are not popular with others.

Now, if you need to kick start your short story, below you’ll find all you need for

  1. The specific Character type
·        Jung’s Six Heroes 

·        Archetypes  - a mind boggling number to choose from are here      
·        Trait's of Human Consciousness  article by Roy Posner.
      and  Character Traits created by C. Kochan    
*2. Motives

To Win: love, respect, an object, freedom shelter etc.
To Escape: oppression, danger, family, influence etc.
To Retrieve: self respect, respect from others, a skill, position, property etc
To Compete against: superior forces, a rival, a cheat, the law etc
To Conceal: a crime, object, witness, scheme, emotion etc
To Save: a life, reputation, possession.
To Uncover: a conspiracy, lie, crime, injustice, secret.
To Protect someone: weaker, unjustly accused etc

3. Situations

      According to George Polti, the 19th century French writer, there are only
                     36 dramatic situations 

*4. Complications
Change of routine
Unforseen obstacle
Entering wrong door
Making wrong choice
Taking wrong turning
Unexpected arrival,

5. Solutions i.e. Resolution of Conflict
Here are three ways to go. Win. Lose. Surrender.
Physical or Moral Strength – courage, willpower or visible means.
Moral Strength or ability – invisible means nobility, ingenuity, wisdom.
Resignation. –acceptance, conscience or the getting of wisdom

*tip: Regardless of the situation your character is in, it’s his character type and motive which determines the type of conflict at the heart of the story. ie. man against man, man against Nature, man against self. So when deciding which solution to use, concentrate on the character type and his motive only, and this should make it easier.

Hello muse, happy writing.

* From the diploma course – Professional Writing - I took with International Correspondence Schools, (Australia)  1982.

Wendy's Website

Wendy's Blog

Muse Author Page.

Thanks so much Wendy for such a useful and informative article and for being so generous with all your additional links.
Please post all your comments and questions for Wendy in the comments box below. And do buy one or more of her great books to see how it's done...
Annie :-)


  1. Thanks so much for this Wendy. Definitely a post to bookmark and keep. So useful for planning those competition entries and ensuring publication.

  2. Thanks for having me here today, Annie. I'm glad you find the post useful.

  3. Hi, Wendy. I had to see your post as I write mostly short, romantic fiction. And had no idea about the breakdown. Just went naturally with what I'd learned from writing a book and making it shorter. Thanks so much.

  4. Hi Vicki,
    It sounds like you write novellas rather than short stories. A novella could be expanded into a novel, but a short story is compact, a gem in itself. Without a frame, a short story soon escapes and you realize you have a short (or long) book. That's what happened to me with The Unhewn Stone. I wanted to write a 3,000 word short story but it got away from me because I lost the point and put much more into the story. It became 117,000 words which had to be polished back to 93,000 words. I'm not sorry though. :)

  5. Great post Wendy. So happy to visit two of my favorite people here. Hi Annie, Hi Wendy

    say hi to Spitzly for me.

  6. Amazing amount of information shared Wendy. This is worth keeping. For any one who hasn't already read Wendy's short stories.. don't waste another day.
    For a longer adventure I recommend Wendy's The Unhewn Stone. It's one of those wonderful stories you can read and re read and enjoy each time.
    Wendy, thanks for sharing. Are these the secrets behind your magic pen? Annie, wonderful blog.

  7. Lots of good info for short story writers!

  8. Hi Nancy,
    I'm glad you like the post. This means a great deal to me since you and Annie are my favourite editors. Spitzli sends a cute little 'hello' bark to you and your lovely horses.
    Hi Rosalie, you say the nicest things. Thank you.
    Hi Cheryl, I'm so glad you stopped by. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Thanks, Wendy, for laying this process out in logical order. I'd like to try it with my children's stories.
    And than, you, too, Annie, for inviting Wendy to share her expertise.

  10. Hi Barbara, I think you'll find the framework helps to contain the story to the one most important episode and keeps the purpose uppermost. I hope the lists make your choice of character type and motive easier. Thank you for being here.

  11. Wonderful Wendy working her magic again! Thank you so much for this post Wendy. It's so clear that I'm going to print it out and keep it handy to read and re-read until my absent muse returns to my currently empty head. And thank you Annie for hosting Wendy today. I well remember Billy the Bonsai Bull and The Unhewn Stone but have not tried Happiness Guaranteed yet - must put that on the list.

  12. Thanks for stopping by Carole. Lovely to see you. You have currently an empty head? Never! I hope you have fun with the links for Characters and for Situations. They should get your Muse running riot again and not only for short stories.

  13. Really a great article, Wendy. One of these days I'll tackle a short story and refer to this post again. Two fragments lie around abandoned...

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  14. Hi Edith, Glad you liked the article. Having a fragment is half the battle - now you just need to give it a purpose, turn it into one episode, choose a frame and your gem will practically write itself. You'll be the next O'Henry or Guy de Maupassant. I want to morph into O'Henry.

  15. Great post! Lots of information. I'll be bookmarking and sharing this!

  16. Hi Karen, That's great to hear. Thanks.

  17. Wow, Wendy this is an exceptional amount of information compacted into a concise guide. I've definitely bookmarked this and suspect I'll be returning to it regularly, everytime I write a short story. Thank you!

  18. Great guidelines, Wendy. I've saved this article for future reference and plan to share it with my writing group. Nicely done!

  19. Hi Magdalena and Pat,
    So glad you found this useful and delighted you'll be using and sharing the info. You know, Annie's blog is such a wonderful source of writing information, I have the bookmarked icon to Slow and Steady School of Writing on my desktop because Annie puts up such useful links and content all the time, I just have to keep coming back. Thank you Annie!

  20. This is great information! I'm bookmarking it.

  21. Hello Ruth, I'm happy you find this useful. Thanks for letting me know :)


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