In 2015, I created a simple plot formula for short stories. Instead of trying to make it broad enough to work for any story, I focused on making it easy to use. Rather than creating a grand formula targeted at novelists, I designed it for short works. However, the formula’s most unique and essential feature was something I took for granted. While other formulas like the Hero’s Journey treat story events like independent entities, my formula directed writers to look at the big picture – their throughline – and create a cohesive plot around that.
While the formula didn’t have much impact on future articles, it made a big difference to many writers that used it. People who’d never been able to plot before reported that it was a breakthrough for them.
Fast-forward seven years, and it’s high time I gave the formula a second edition. I’ve added more tips, a few more options, and further reading. While the new version may seem a little more complicated than the last one, that’s because I’m offering more guidance to make sure your story is the best it can be. Even if you don’t get it perfect, I think you’ll get better results this way. But don’t worry, you can still read the original via PDF.
1. Choose an Urgent Problem
Invent a problem that needs to be addressed soon to prevent something bad from happening. How bad this consequence must be depends on the type of story you want to tell. A problem that could result in people dying will create an exciting story, whereas a problem that could hurt someone’s feelings will create a more personal tale. What’s important is that your readers understand this outcome is undesirable and that to prevent it, someone will need to get right on that.
Since you’re writing a short story, the problem should also be small in scope. That means it could be solved by a single person in a couple hours to a couple weeks. Narrow down who or what is affected until it’s specific enough to be tackled in a handful of scenes.
- After getting dumped, Jamal will have a sad and lonely birthday tomorrow.
- The ship’s warp drive is close to failing, and the crew needs it to get home.
- A monster has come out from under the bed to eat someone.
Learn more about making compelling problems
2. Create a Character to Solve It
Next, you need a star of the show. Create a main character to solve the problem from the previous step. You want a character who has the biggest reason to care about the problem and who is well placed to solve it. Generally that means the character needs to be close to the problem.
- If someone will be lonely on their birthday, it’s them.
- If a home might be destroyed, it’s their home.
- If someone might be eaten by a monster, it’s also them.
- If a rebel base will be discovered, they’re a rebel.
Involving a loved one usually works too. Maybe it’s their father who could be eaten by a monster or a best friend who will be lonely on their birthday. If your story is about a superhero who needs to rescue civilians, consider including someone they care about among the civilians. This will give the story more emotional weight.
Then make sure your character has what they need to be a problem solver. While it’s not impossible to have a small child prevent the passage of a bad law in parliament, it will certainly take more creativity. On the other hand, a rebel spy who can feed false information to the oppressive government is well placed to keep other rebels from being discovered. You might give your character professional skills or official responsibility for averting disaster.
If you have trouble creating a person with a plausible chance of solving the problem in a few hours to a few weeks, your problem might be too big in scope.
- Silvia doesn’t want her best friend, Jamal, to be lonely on his birthday tomorrow.
- Riley, the ship’s mechanic, needs to keep the warp drive from failing.
- Mia needs to keep the monster from under her bed from eating her dad.
Learn more about creating a main character
- Twelve Traits for a Lovable Hero
- Do Characters Need to Be Likable?
- The Six Traits of Strong Characters
3. Give Your Character a Plan
Once your readers know who your main character is and understand the problem they face, it’s time to move the story forward. To do that, your character should come up with a plan to solve the problem. Let your readers know what it is.
The plan can be simple, but don’t let readers think it will be easy to pull off. That could mean:
- Your character must race to complete the plan before the problem gets out of hand.
- The plan comes with a risk of backfiring or poses some other danger.
- Your character immediately runs into an obstacle described in step 4, below.
The plan doesn’t actually have to work in the end. What matters is that the main character has a good reason for believing it will work, and that pursuing it ultimately takes them in the right direction.
- Silvia plans to spend the day with Jamal so he won’t be lonely, but they haven’t spoken since they got in a fight a couple weeks ago.
- Riley hopes to use a pack of nanites to reverse the damage to the warp drive. However, the nanites aren’t designed to operate while the drive is running, and at the rate the drive is being damaged, Riley doesn’t have time to shut it down safely first.
- Mia decides to lure the monster into a trap she’s created from a bin, but to do that, she’ll have to be the bait.
Learn more about character agency and motivation
4. Narrate a Few Obstacles
In enacting their plan, your main character must get past a few obstacles. How many obstacles you put in depends on the length you want your story to be, but one to three is a good range. After they struggle with an obstacle, your main character needs to be closer to solving the problem, yet the problem must feel harder to solve than before.
How do you do that? Here are several options. You can use one of them several times or mix and match them.
They finish a difficult step, then get bad news
Step one of their plan is a real struggle, but they manage it. However, as soon as they do, something bad happens that makes the next step even harder.
- Silvia calls Jamal to ask to come over for his birthday, but Jamal is still angry with her. After a short argument, Silvia finally gives Jamal a real apology. Jamal accepts her apology but says he’s already accepted a double shift at work. He’s decided that he’s not having a birthday this year.
- Silvia shows up at Jamal’s workplace with birthday supplies. The public isn’t allowed in the back of the building where Jamal works, but Silvia talks her way in by offering to share the birthday cake with Jamal’s coworkers. Just as she brings in the birthday supplies and coworkers gather for cake, the boss shows up to find out what the commotion is.
Their plan doesn’t work, but they receive a clue
The plan is executed correctly – but it doesn’t actually work. However, this failure gives the main character critical information about the nature of the problem they can use to create a new plan. Think ahead and come up with the real solution to the problem, and then add a clue for each failure that will get your character closer to figuring it out.
The failed attempts must come at a cost that makes solving the problem more difficult. The main character might have wasted time or precious resources on the attempt, or perhaps the situation has become more dire, shortening the deadline.
- Riley manages to keep the nanites from breaking as they put them in the drive. Not only do the nanites fail to fix the drive, but the damage is accelerating.
- Riley configures the drive settings to be less hostile to the nanites, hoping it will allow the nanites to repair it. But the drive immediately gets worse.
Something goes wrong, forcing them to adapt
While executing the plan, something goes wrong, putting everything in jeopardy. The main character manages to adapt and avoid complete failure, but the change still means their task is harder than before.
- Just when Mia is trying to get the monster’s attention, her father gets up to go to the bathroom, oblivious to the monster’s presence. Mia manages to keep the monster focused on her by waving a flashlight around, but now she has to keep everything quiet so her awake father doesn’t come to investigate and get eaten.
- As the monster comes after Mia, it doesn’t crawl along the floor like she thought it would. Instead it crawls along the ceiling, avoiding the bin trap she’s laid out for it. Mia manages to move the trap to where it can catch the monster coming down from the ceiling, but now she has to hold the trap in position rather than run to safety.
When you’re done outlining, check each obstacle: Can you simply cut it in its entirety while leaving the rest of your story intact? If so, that means you’re not moving your main character closer to solving the problem. As a result of their struggle, they should gain critical information, find new friends or resources, or complete an essential step in their plan.
For instance, if I cut out Silvia and Jamal’s first conversation, Silvia would never learn that Jamal will be working on his birthday. I would have to fill in at least one sentence explaining that she knows he’s working. Then, I would have to revise a later scene to reflect that he’s still mad at her. Since I would have to make additional changes if I removed that obstacle, I know Silvia is getting closer to solving the problem.
If one of your obstacles doesn’t meet this requirement and you don’t mind a shorter story, you can simply cut that obstacle. On the other hand, if you want your story to be shorter but all of your obstacles are essential, simply make those events easy and brief. Then move right to the next obstacle. Mia’s dad never goes to the bathroom, so she gets the monster’s attention quickly – but then it crawls along the ceiling.
Learn more about filling in your story
5. Bring Events to a Head
It’s time for your climax. Bring your main character to the cusp of solving the problem, but then make the situation as dire as it can get while still leaving the possibility that your main character can turn it around.
- The boss demands to know why no one is working, and everyone points to the surprised and mortified Jamal. Silvia gets an angry look from Jamal and realizes that she may have both ruined Jamal’s birthday and lost his friendship.
- The warp drive starts to falter, and the ship loses velocity.
- The monster approaches the spot where Mia holds the trap, but it manages to swerve around the trap and goes for Mia instead. Mia sees its shadowy jaws open to envelop her.
Your main character will turn this around in step 6, so if you have trouble there, try backing up and making this moment a little less dire. However, it should still be more dire than at any previous point in the story. Failure must be imminent.
6. Create a Breakthrough Moment
Now it’s time for the climax of the climax: the story’s turning point. Your main character will have a breakthrough that allows them to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, how they achieve their victory is incredibly important. They can’t just get lucky; they have to earn their victory by proving themself.
Below are some ways that characters can prove themselves:
- Cleverly putting together clues and having a realization
- Showing bravery or great willpower in the face of fear or temptation
- Making a difficult sacrifice
- Demonstrating unusual kindness or goodwill
Whatever they do, it has to be exceptional enough to make an impression. Being nice to a friend is easy, whereas being nice to an enemy is hard. If they prove themself by refusing a temptation, that temptation must feel like something they desperately want.
Then this breakthrough needs to be the reason your main character is victorious. That may seem tough at first, but characters can prove themselves in many different ways. Whatever ending you have in mind, there’s something that fits.
- Trusting that the boss can be understanding, Silvia spills her guts in front of everyone, telling them how much Jamal has done for her in the past, admitting that she made a mistake in springing the birthday on him at work, and humbly telling the boss she’s been a terrible friend, and Jamal shouldn’t be punished for it.
- Riley thinks over what happened and realizes the nanites are causing the drive failure. Some of them got loose from their container, and when the drive is running they don’t do what they’re supposed to.
- Mia dives into the trap herself, letting the monster come for her as long as it follows her in.
Learn more about turning points
- Six Types of Turning Points for Climaxes
- Turning Points: The Secret to Satisfying Conflicts
- Understanding Character Karma
7. Tie Up Loose Ends
Now it’s time to show how the turning point leads directly to success; it must enable the main character to solve the problem and avert any oncoming catastrophes. However, your ending doesn’t have to be perfectly happy. You might have a bittersweet ending if irreparable damage has already occurred or your main character makes a sacrifice during the turning point.
After you show how your character’s breakthrough leads to victory, tie up the story and give your readers closure. In particular, if you introduced new problems to make your character’s plan more difficult, make sure those are addressed so readers don’t feel concerned about them anymore. Consider what note you’d like the story to end on, and put that down.
- The boss is touched by Silvia’s heartfelt confession. Wishing Jamal a happy birthday, the boss lets everyone have a short break to eat cake. Jamal gives Silvia a hug and tells her she’s not a bad friend, just a little misguided sometimes. Silvia watches Jamal laugh and joke about the incident with his coworkers over cake.
- Riley changes the drive configuration to be as hostile to the nanites as possible. It prevents the drive from taking more damage, giving Riley enough time to sputter the ship to a halt and shut down the drive. Then they use the now-behaving nanites to repair the drive. Afterward, Riley makes sure the nanites are all flushed out and puts them in a more secure container to prevent it from happening again.
- The monster jumps in the trap after Mia, and the trap snaps shut behind them. They’re both squeezed in so tight that the monster can’t move its head around or get its jaws open to eat her. When the sun comes up a few hours later, the shadowy monster dissolves in the light. Mia wakes up to her confused dad, who asks why she was playing make believe in a trash bin while she was supposed to be sleeping.
Learn more about endings
Storytelling isn’t easy, so a good outline may not be easy to make either. Do your best, and don’t be afraid to tell me how well the revised formula is working for you.
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