In this article I’ll briefly go over the general structure of a short story, give some miscellaneous advice, and present a writing exercise.

Structure of a short story

Short story is a literary form that has a well defined structure. Of course, aspects of this structure can be modified, and I’ll go into that in more detail once I explain the general structure.

There are two sort of forms I have seen short stories take.

Freytag’s Triangle

One form is your nice and familiar Freytag’s Triangle, named for Gustav Freytag. The structure is as follows:


In exposition you are setting the scene. This is where you introduce the reader to the location of the story, and to the actors who will be involved. This is your classic “in a small kingdom long ago” section. Exposition is important because it gives your reader an idea of what is going on. Without a good idea, you risk losing your reader to confusion. I’ll illustrate using an example of Virgil’s revisions (hope you don’t mind) of The Tower.

Compare Draft 1 to Draft 2

One is much more confusing than the other. What was the difference? The difference is now there is exposition to set the scene, and introduce the speakers.

Rising action

Rising action is where the story starts to kick in. This is where you introduce the conflict in the story. This section is pretty self evident. You’ll know it when you are there, because it’s the part questions start to be raised.


Also known as crisis, turning point. Turning point is actually the best description, although Climax is the standard terminology. The climax is the turning point of the conflict—not necessarily the big fight or something. An example of this is Hamlet. What was the climax of Hamlet? Some might guess the big ballroom fight where everyone dies, since surely that was a climax. Actually, the climax was in Act III when Hamlet has a turning point in his conflict (Man vs. Self) and decides to take matters into his own hands, now that he has the confirmation he wanted.

Falling action

Falling action is where the aftermath of the turning point happens. This will be pretty self-evident as well. After the turning point, the character has changed, and the falling action demonstrates what the changes have done to the character.


Dénouement is the tying up of loose ends, and release of tension and anxiety. It should give the reader a feeling of closure.


These parts of the triangle do not come in discrete packages, more often than not. They bleed together very naturally.

The natural narrative

Another school of thought is the natural narrative hypothesis proposed by the linguist Labov. The natural narrative structure is thought to be the way we naturally tell stories, and the short story is a modified form of this more general structure.


The abstract is a summary of what the story is about. This is often seen in our everyday story telling “This one time at the mall, Mike got owned”, but not used as often in short stories. You still see it in some stories like, “I remember the time Mitch’s bike was stolen”.

Orientation, Complicating Action, Evaluation, Result

These are basically the same ideas as in Freytag’s of exposition, rising action, turning point, falling action.

The evaluation is important though, and the explanation is different enough from that of turning point to be worth expanding on.

Evaluation is considered by Labov to be “perhaps the most important element in addition to the basic narrative clause.” By evaluation, Labov means “the means used by the narrator to indicate the point of the narrative,” [to justify the claims in the “abstract”]. “Evaluative devices say to us: this was terrifying, dangerous, weird, wild, crazy; or amusing, hilarious and wonderful . . . that is, worth reporting.” [1]


The coda is where the narrator indicates closure, as in “And they lived happily ever after”.


Obviously, I would say about a majority of short stories forgo abstract and coda, and that’s a perfectly valid thing to do.

Elements of a short story

Miscellaneous thoughts

You short story should involve a change in the character. Either he overcomes a challenge, or he is overwhelmed by it. Whatever the case, he should change. His perception of the world, or the way he acts within it should emerge changed. A good short story illustrates a transformative experience in the character’s life, no matter how trivial the event. Maybe the main character is simply observing two butterflies frolicking and mating, when suddenly a prying mantis snaps one of them up. Is this short story worthy? Sure, if you describe it well, and show the impact if had on someone’s life.

Great short stories often involved self discovering. Write on a topic you don’t know everything about. A lot of people use the phrase “write what you know” as advice for beginning writers—fine, but Ms. Schumacher had a good point as well. When you do know about the circumstances surrounding an event, or everything about a topic, you are an expert and the things you write really are like articles. You know more than the reader, and you are giving the reader exposition. When writing about a topic where you are as equally knowledgeable (or ignorant) as the reader you are brought down to their level, and you have to explore the topic together. Good writing should feel like an adventure, and exploration into the unknown. As a writer, if you are trying to find your way through the story, the process of exploration will really show. One of the striking things about Schumacher’s story The Private Life of Robert Schumann is that we feel like we are unveiling a mystery along aside the characters. I think trying to capture the moment of discovery in a short story is very akin to trying to capture the occasion of a poem—they are the same concept.

Through the process of uncovering the truth your character will experience change—and your reader will be pulled along, after all, we want to know the truth too.

A good short story character should be changed by the events unfolding around him, but he shouldn’t be passively subjected to fate. Make him fight back. Nobody entirely lies down and takes a beating that life gives. Show this. It’s fine if he is eventually defeated and gives up, but you have to show him breaking. Maybe breaking was his transformative experience, and he now realizes how correct the nihilists were all along. It could make a great story if you write it well.

Types of conflict

Man vs. Self : The main character struggles with himself or herself: with his or her soul, morality, physical limitations, past choices, etc. Example: A beggar debates whether to take the wallet he sees on the ground.

Man vs. Man : The main character struggles against the opposing goals, actions, beliefs of another character. Example: Two political candidates vie for office.

Man vs. Circumstance : The main character struggles against fate, or the circumstances of life facing him or her. Example: Alexa wants to be a doctor, but has to drop out of medical school to help her alcoholic sister.

Man vs. Group : The character struggles against the ideas, practices, or customs of other people. Example: A lesbian couple wishes to marry in an extremely conservative society. What’s more, they don’t want to hide it.


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  1. Virgil on 20 October 2008, 23:09 said:

    Pretty good. I’m honored you would use my failings as an example, :D . My favorite short story is The Most Dangerous Game by Connell. Lot’s of conflict and character, and really thrilling to read through.

  2. Snow White Queen on 20 October 2008, 23:33 said:

    oh, is that the one with the big game hunter who’s tired of hunting animals, so he hunts a person instead?

  3. SlyShy on 20 October 2008, 23:39 said:

    Virgil, I was actually going to mention that story in my discussion of irony, heh.

  4. Snow White Queen on 20 October 2008, 23:46 said:

    my favorite is ‘the lady or the tiger?’

  5. SlyShy on 20 October 2008, 23:51 said:

    My favorite, as I may have mentioned before, is A Song for Lya.

  6. SubStandardDeviation on 21 October 2008, 02:11 said:

    Yay, a short story article! Most of my plot bunnies take the form of short story, so it’s nice to find an article that isn’t about thousand-page worldbuilding/plotting/etc. Although I tend to dispense with the exposition and drop the (hypothetical) reader into the conflict straightaway.

    Virgil, I love that one too. Never a bore to read through, despite it being in my English textbook.

    SlyShy, is ASfL in Dreamsongs?

  7. Amelie on 22 October 2008, 14:27 said:

    This is a cool article; it explored lots of aspects of short stories that I ordinarily wouldn’t think about. I agree that it’s nice to look at something other than epic mega-fantasy… all that worldbuilding can sometimes make my brain hurt. And Virgil, I really like The Most Dangerous Game! Very good short story.

  8. Amelie on 22 October 2008, 14:38 said:

    Ooooh, I would also like to add that my favorite short story is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

  9. SlyShy on 22 October 2008, 16:55 said:

    SSD, ASfL is indeed in Dreamsongs.

    Oh, Amelia, did you read that in the TAA course (or whatever it is called now)?

  10. Addie on 23 October 2008, 13:01 said:

    My favorite short story is “The Woman Who Spanked The Queen” … although technically, it’s only a story within a larger novel.

    Also, The Yellow Wallpaper is really good. Very dizzying.

  11. Addie on 23 October 2008, 14:01 said:

    Sorry, up there that’s supposed to be “The Woman Who Spanked the King.” Wasn’t thinking.

  12. Amelie on 23 October 2008, 14:20 said:

    Sly- actually no, I read it in a different literature course several years ago. And I love it. It’s so trippy and awesome. :P

  13. neysa juliet garcia on 31 January 2012, 23:52 said:

    i love it its the best one i had ever read. who am i kiding its the first one i have ever read in my life!!!!!!!! ;-)