Originally posted 12-23-2010
A short story can be structured in a myriad of ways, but experience dictates to me that the VAST majority of stories do not need complicated structures to work well. More to the point, I find that the VAST majority of stories that try to do “creative” things with structure fail to achieve the goal and are simply muddled. There are exceptions of course, but the exceptions that work are few and far between.
So, on that note, I encourage people to write their stories following the stock plot structure, which goes something like this: exposition, rising action, climax. If necessary, you can include the falling action and resolution, but I find that the falling action and resolution get folded into the climax in short form fiction. Of course, these terms are fairly hollow, in and of themselves, so here’s a short example.
Miriam had thrown the party of the year and she knew it. She floated from guest to guest, basking in the glow of her success. For the first time in ages, she not only was, but felt witty and at ease. The mistakes of the past were washed away by the attentive eyes and the engaged conversation. She made her way through the crowd, a passing word here, a light touch on the arm there, on the way to the wet bar. The server smiled at her, his starched shirt impossibly crisp and his teeth impossibly white.
“Scotch on the rocks, please,” she said.
The server poured the drink and handed it to her.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Yes, have you seen my husband?”
The server shifted his eyes before nodding his head no, but Miriam caught the unspoken lie.
The above does most of the things the introduction portion or exposition portion of the story should do. It introduces our central character, gives setting, and builds up to the moment of rising action.
Miriam had no conscious thought for her guests as she rushed from the room, almost knocking one of the catering staff of his feet as she shoved open the door. She raced up the stairs of the million dollar home she had spent too much time alone in over the years. Her eyes passed over the artwork and the antique silver. Without even understanding why, she recalled the cost of each and said it under her breath.
“Thirty-eight thousand, twenty-two thousand, fourteen thousand,” she whispered.
She ran toward the master bedroom, her high-heeled shoes cracking against the hardwood with a sound like gunfire. She stopped short of the mahogany door, her hand resting on the ornate brass handle.
In the above, I build up the tension by showing that Miriam is concerned and racing to see if she’s right to be concerned, but there’s nothing confirmed at this point. Everything here is by implication, rather than explication.
Miriam took a breath to try to steady her racing heart. She braced herself for the worst, turned the knob and stepped into the bedroom.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” said John, holding out a glass of champagne to Miriam.
A breath she didn’t know she’d been holding exploded from Miriam. She took the glass from John and drained it.
Here the climax is relatively straightforward and, as the conflict in the story was one built on assumption and expectation, can be resolved quickly. While this little example won’t win any awards, it should help to clarify what is meant by exposition, rising action, and climax. In this case, there isn’t any real falling action or resolution outside of the climax.