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What is Plot in a Short Story?

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April 2011
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Every published short story has a plot—a story with a series of casual events that includes a beginning, middle, and end.  Every good short story includes motive, conflict, climax, and resolution—the essential components of a short story. Without plot, the writer has not crafted a short story.
 
In this post, I will cover the following aspects of plot:

  • Definition
  • Narrative Arc or plot structure
  • Story versus Plot
  • Components of a story

Definition of Plot

What is plot in a short story? It is the series of events that make up the story, in which there is a beginning, middle, and end. Each story has its own unique plot. In Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, there are a series of casual events that the protagonist must face while he treks through the Yukon wilderness. In James Joyce’s “Eveline”, the heroine thinks about a series of events that took place in the past, while attempting to make a decision about love. The final event ends the story—she decides to not get on the ship that will sail away to a new life with her love.
 
There are two types of plot that a writer can create. The first type is a unified plot. The story is realistic, includes a central character and action, and takes place in a single place, usually during a short span of time, such as an hour, few hours, a day. For instance, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a short story based on a conversation that takes place on a single day.
 
The second type of plot that a writer can craft is the episodic plot. The story has a setting central character, conflict, takes place over a much longer period of time. Often the writer will use the technique of “flashback” to provide background details or to tell the story. For instance, Margaret Attwood’s “Death by Landscape” tells a tale that goes from childhood to middle age.
 
Plot is also the movement in time, movement in casualty, and movement in dramatic tension. How is plot a movement in time? A short story takes place during a particular span of time—such as a conversation, hour, few hours, day, week, or much longer. During the time frame, the central character is motivated to achieve some purpose will confronting or being confronted with conflict and/or obstacles.
 
How is plot a movement in casualty? A short story is based on a series of casual events, one after another. So, the writer must craft a story that is based on cause and effect. The first event triggers the second event. The second event triggers the third event, and so on. If the writer introduces a particular event, it must have a casual relationship to a previous event.
 
How is plot a movement in dramatic tension? Read any short story, and you will see that the writer dramatizes events, inspiring the reader to turn the page and read on. To dramatize a story, the writer must use the technique of “show, don’t tell.” He/she crafts a dramatic scene to ratchet up the tension. A scene includes a location, dialogue, action, vivid details, and concrete and specific description. Short stories often include several scenes, each becoming more dramatic—until the climax or turning point of the story, the scene that contains the most tension. The writer also deploys show, don’t’ tell to crafts short story that includes conflict, obstacles, suspense. The writer might also include foreshadowing, flashback,epiphany. 

Narrative Arc of a Short Story

Every short story has a narrative arc or plot structure. The narrative arc has the following components:

  • Inciting incident
  • Rising action or plot complication
  • Climax or turning point
  • Resolution

The writer begins the short story with an inciting incident—an event, action, decision that creates conflict, tension, unrest in the life of the central character, who is motivated or who desires to take action to achieve some particular purpose. In Hemmingway’s, “Hills with White Elephants”, the inciting incident is the unplanned pregnancy. In Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet to the Brian”, the story also begins with an inciting incident: “Andres couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless…”
Often, the writer deploys a narrative hook to share the inciting incident with the reader. For instance, in Susan Minot’s “Lust”, she begins with a hook and inciting incident: “Leo was from a long time ago, the first one I ever saw nude.”
 
Next, the writer introduces the rising action or one or more plot complications. The writer introduces a conflict—man against himself, man versus nature, protagonist against antagonist, a spiritual conflict, and so forth. The writer can also introduce obstacles, which prevent the central character from achieving his goal or purpose. For instance, in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, the traveler, who is the central character in the story, faces several obstacles while attempting to hike through the snowy bush to the camp site—bone chilling cold, deep snow, frostbite, falling through the ice, snow falling on the camp fire, exhaustion, anxiety, and the inability to restart the fire with matches.
 
After introducing the plot complication or rising action, the writer crafts the turning point or climax. This is the point of the story with the most tension and most exciting event in the series of events that make up the story. The central character might face his/her enemy, make a decision, find a solution, experience an epiphany, or change in perception. In Margaret Attwood’s “Death by Landscape”, the turning point occurs when the supporting character disappears on a canoe trip. In William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, the turning point occurs when the central character, Emily, buys rat poison, which she will use to kill her lover/companion, Homer Barron, after he decides to end the relationship.
 
After introducing the turning point, the writer brings resolution to the story. The writer can end a story with an open or closed ending. When the story ends with a closed ending, the writer resolves the story by answering unanswered questions explicitly stated or implied in the story. Sometimes the story ends with a death. Jack London ends “To Build a Fire” with the death of the central character. William Faulkner ends “A Rose for Emily” with the death of the main character. The writer can end the story with an open ending: “Resolution is the end of  the story, but it is not necessarily The End.”  (On Writing Short Stories by Tom Bailey) When the writer crafts this type of ending, the reader is left to wonder or surmise what happens next, after the story has ended.

Plot versus Story

What is the difference between plot and story? Strictly speaking, the story is the series of related events that make up the story. The plot of the story, on the other hand, asks why? It includes the motive of the main character to take action or to react. And this motive helps to create meaning or theme, which enables the reader to talk about what the story says about the human condition. 

Components of a Short Story

In “On Writing Short Stories”, by Tom Bailey, he discusses the components of a short story–which is similar to the narrative arc or plot structure. He suggests that there is no plot structure, only components that are crafted, molded into a short story. These components include:

  • motivation—the desire of the central character to take action, to react.
  • Conflict–man against nature, man against man, man against society.
  • Climax-the highest point of tension, most intense action, turning point of the story
  • Resolution-the story ends.

In summary, all short stories require a narrative arc or the components of a short story: motivation, conflict, turning point, resolution. Without these components, you have not written a complete short story

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7 Comments

  1. mima says:

    W HaT IS the semmytrical design in” eveline”?

  2. krobl says:

    cool thx

  3. owabor kelechi says:

    Nice one

  4. karen says:

    “:))

  5. karen says:

    its hard????

  6. adam says:

    Great article, but the word “casual” is repeatedly used instead of “causal”.

  7. angela127 says:

    Thank you, your post answered a lot of questions for me, I really appreciate the fact that you took time to make this information available to those of us who need it :-)

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Freelance Photographer and Writer

David Hood

David Hood

Artistic/Creative Type

Bachelor of Arts Degree, Diploma, and many writing and photography courses.

Many years experience as a writer

Freelance writer and digital photographer

Published author of "The Art and Craft of Creative Writing"

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