Writing

Outline a Short Story in Seven Steps

If you have lots of creative ideas and trouble organizing them, try using this framework to craft a short story. It isn’t the key to making every tale under the sun, but it should help you frame your central conflict, create a proactive character, and mold a satisfying finish. Even if you wander away from the track, you’ll have a head start in crafting a compelling narrative.

1. Name a Problem

It can be any problem, from crazy to mundane. If you’re having an unimaginative day, just choose a real problem in your life. The only caveat is that if you choose something trivial, you’ll work harder to make it meaningful, and if you choose something daunting, you could struggle to find a solution. Look for a significant problem that can be solved by one person, in one scene. But you can make anything work.

Example

  1. The purple nail polish is missing.
  2. Aliens are tapping on the windows.
  3. The garden isn’t pollinated.

2. Create the Character Who Has This Problem

Keep it simple. This is a short story; there won’t be time to describe their middle name or hairdo anyway – unless those things are relevant to the problem you created. Just give yourself a few basics to get into the mindset. The rest can develop as you go.

Example

  1. A young man
  2. A grandmother
  3. A gender-ambiguous child

3. Describe Why the Problem Matters to the Character

The more important the problem is to the character, the more important it becomes to the reader. Come up with a solid reason why this character cares; this goes double if your problem is trivial. Raise the stakes until it has emotional impact.

Example

  1. The man’s girlfriend bought him the nail polish a year ago, but he never wore it. Now their relationship is in jeopardy, and to keep her he has to demonstrate how he cares.
  2. Long ago, the grandmother’s young brother disappeared after similar aliens tapped on the windows one night. Tonight, her young grandchildren are visiting.
  3. The child has a garden that supplies a rare medicine. Unless the plants are pollinated soon, half a dozen people – and close personal friends to the child – will die.

When you’re done, look over your descriptions to decide if your problem is still the same. In my trivial nail polish example, the added meaning has revealed the actual problem of the story: he’s about to lose his girlfriend. I’ll need to describe why keeping the relationship matters to him. The other problems could also be redefined at this stage.

4. Illustrate an Obstacle That Holds Them Back

Think ahead to how your character could solve the problem. Then decide what is preventing them from getting there. What will they struggle against during the story? If you want a character-focused story, this is where you introduce your character arc; just make their obstacle a personality flaw.

Example

  1. The young man is focused on the nail polish because he’s a perfectionist. He’s too distracted about getting every detail right to see the big picture. This often makes him late and causes his girlfriend to think he doesn’t care.
  2. The aliens are immune to normal weapons, and the grandmother can’t call for help because the tapping on the windows creates an interference pattern, disabling electronic devices.*
  3. Every pollinator brought in is immediately eaten by bats. The child hates bats, but no one has succeeded at capturing or killing them.

5. Narrate One to Three Attempts to Solve the Problem

I say “attempts” because your character must fail and then face consequences for that failure. This should ramp up the tension and suspense. Perhaps the hero runs down the clock on fruitless measures or causes more damage. After every attempt, they should be worse off than when they started.

Example

  1. To give himself time to find the nail polish, the young man tells his girlfriend he’ll be late. She gets upset, telling him that if he cared, he’d come on time. He finds it and rushes out to meet to her, but then realizes he doesn’t have any flowers. While he’s buying some, she calls him to ask him where he is, saying it’s embarrassing to sit at a table alone for a half hour. He hurries to the restaurant, but only in time to see her leave. He runs after her. His girlfriend tells him all she wanted was to go out to dinner with him.
  2. The grandmother tries to board up the windows to keep the aliens from coming in, but their bodies flow through the cracks and enter the house. Then she grabs a kitchen knife and tries to stab them, but they just vaporize and coalesce again, moving into the bedroom where the kids are sleeping.
  3. The child only has four days to pollinate the plants; otherwise the growing season could be too short to save lives. On the first night they bring in some butterflies, but the bats eat them. On the second night they try bees, but the bats eat those too. On the third night they bring in hummingbirds, and they still get eaten. Each time the child curses the bats, and their mother reassures them that bats have a purpose, too.

But there’s hope! Give each failed attempt a small step toward the solution. It might be clue, a tool, or a piece of advice that will help your character. That doesn’t mean they’ll recognize it right away. In fact, it’s better if they don’t.

6. Create a Critical Turning Point

Now the helpful hints finally click together for the hero. They have a stunning realization, a clever idea, or finally understand a piece of wisdom. This gives them their first opportunity to solve the problem.

Example

  1. He realizes that all his attempts to make his girlfriend happy actually made her unhappy, and he apologizes.
  2. She realizes that weapons designed for solid matter don’t work on the aliens, so if she wants to beat them, she’ll need weapons designed for things that aren’t solid.
  3. Even though the child hates bats, they grudgingly decide to study them more closely. As a result, they learn that many bats are pollinators.

If you’re planning an unhappy ending, the hero’s realization may be false or incomplete. Perhaps the hero latches on to the wrong solution to their problem. Regardless, at this point your audience must feel that success is possible.

7. Show What Happens Next

You’ve brought your character to a critical turning point. Now they’ll make a choice that determines their success, and you’ll narrate the results. Whatever happens, their situation must change.

Example

  1. Since all the nice restaurants are now booked for the evening, he asks if they can go out the next night instead, insisting their date is too special for fast food. She sighs and tells him it’s over. Then she leaves, ignoring his apologies.
  2. Just as the aliens reach her grandchildren, the grandmother grabs the vacuum cleaner, turns it on, and jabs them. In response to the jabbing they vaporize and are sucked into the vacuum.
  3. The child devises a way to attract pollinating bats to their garden. On the fourth night these bats come, and they are not eaten!

Go far enough with your narration that your audience knows what’s coming next. The young man will grieve over his lost relationship. The grandmother will dispose of the alien-filled vacuum cleaner. The child will tend to the plants and make the medicine. The details might be different, but the direction is clear.


I said there were seven steps, but I didn’t say they were easy. They take some creative problem solving. Lucky for us, creating stories is like any other skill: with practice you’ll get better.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about , ,

 

Comments

  1. Nykt Kultus

    I can’t fully express how helpful this is. Most of the time my head is full of plot ideas that won’t shut up but when I try to turn them into stories they get slippery as hell. This blog has earned a big spot in my heart, please keep up with the good work!

  2. Neesha

    I just stumbled upon this blog post while searching for ways to build upon a premise. Story ideas are abundant, but turning them into complete pieces almost always stumps me. I’ve tried so many methods, and none have helped until today! Thank you so much for this guide. I’ve adopted it into my story-writing process. I just finished writing a draft of a sci-fi story I’ve been working on for many months. This makes me so happy!

  3. Jupitersky

    Enjoyed reading this yesterday and decided to use it to outline a story I have had in the back of my head fora while now but have struggled with putting it on paper.
    Boom!! Two hours later, it is practically written a more complete and comprehensive out line I have never managed!!

    Thank you. If it gets published you will be given credit!

  4. Cayleigh Stickler

    This is a great guide! I’m contributing short stories to a few anthologies this year, and I’ve always struggled with writing short stories because of their length constraints. I’ve never considered writing an outline for a short story, but I’ve tried it with one and it worked beautifully. It added another layer of depth it wouldn’t have had had I not outlined before writing.

    I’m finding it difficult to exercise self-control and not read all your blog posts in one sitting. They’re all incredibly helpful and just what I need to read!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  5. J. D. McGowan

    Without Chris’ invaluable help, my little urban fantasy world wouldn’t exist.
    Thank you for providing a map for one of the most difficult territories a writer must traverse–plotting.

  6. Pete

    Hi there! I really like reading this site, it has so many useful articles, I especially like yours, Chris and yours, Oren. I’ve started the outline for a story but I can’t think of any attempts the character might have to solve her problems but I hope you can help. By the way here is my outline so far:

    Problem: Government officials take increasingly extreme ends to uncover the revolutionaries.

    Character: A small shop owner secretly allied with the revolution.

    Importance: The shopkeeper is a wife and mother of two children and she can’t supply for her family while in prison

    Obstacle: She can’t find refuge in any of the revolutionary’s hide-outs because her support had been to subtle for anyone to of notice her as of yet and she can’t show her support now with the government

    • Chris Winkle

      You might be getting stuck because you haven’t homed in on the problem well enough. You’re leaving it too big and vague, making it difficult for your character to tackle it. Try this:

      Problem: The revolutionaries aren’t recognizing subtle but effective contributions to their cause.

      Character: A small shop owner secretly supporting the revolution.

      Importance: Without the protection of the revolutionaries, government officials will throw the shop owner in jail, where she can’t provide for her family.

      Obstacle: (This is for you to fill in. Look first for some way your character can fix the lack of recognition she’s getting, then ask why she hasn’t done it already. She could be afraid to do what’s necessary or working from an assumption about the revolutionaries that isn’t true.)

      You could also have the problem focus on the government, just make it more tangible. Maybe the problem is that despite her subtly, the government keeps noticing her efforts to support the revolution (they haven’t quite identified her yet, but with each attempt they get closer). Then instead, she’ll be challenged with figuring out how to go undetected.

      I hope that helps!

      Chris

      • Pete

        Thanks for the advice Chris!

  7. Tumblingxelian

    That was an interesting read and a worthwhile guide.

  8. Ingrid

    Great blog. I was looking for clarity on short story outlining and couldn’t find anything that truly helped make it click for me. This did, thank you. I have also found several other blog articles on this site that will come in handy. Good job!

  9. Firefly

    Thank you! I’ve been trying to figure out the structure to short stories for a long time, this was very helpful.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.