A Story Arc: Even Short Fiction Needs One

Hey Battlers! Happy New Year to you! Can you believe we’re in the year 2022 and still no hoverboards? I know, disappointing. But what’s not disappointing is that we have another year of prompts and challenges for our writing adventures!

We’re going to attempt some new things again this year. One will be a brief once-monthly writing advice/extra challenge post. And the first one we’ll cover is story arc! The advice for this one is pretty standard stuff. My example I’ll give is for a novel length project (mostly because I already have one for my first published novel), but I’ll attempt to talk about the basics of a story arc as they are applicable to a short story.

Story Arcs are cool, like bowties

First, I’ll share my two favorite sources for story structure teaching:

K. M. Weiland at Helping Writers Become Authors and the podcast called Writing Excuses hosted by a talented group of generous authors.

These authors have influenced me in my writing journey a lot over the years, and I’ve gleaned much of what I’ll share in this BB writing helps series with you from writers like them.

All stories have arcs. Most of them follow a pattern that is not so much predictable as it is expected on a subconcious level. In fact, you’ve spent your life ingesting stories and probably follow the basic arc of a story without even realizing it. An arc is the track the story train travels that hits all the important stops along the way to a satisfying ending.

Every chapter of a book has its own mini arc with its own conflict within the bigger story, and short stories are more like that than a full-blown novel in the level of intricacy of the plot. There’s no way to fit into 2000 words (or even 10,000) what you can fit in 70,000. Where short fiction is more like a novel is that it still thrives on things like a hook, inciting event, actions/reactions that climb toward the climax, and then the resolution.

How I have visualized basic story structure.
(see Helping Writers Become Authors Secrets of Story Structure for an excellent and detailed dive into each part of the above visualized structure).

At a short story’s most basic there should be a

  • Conflict
  • Climax
  • Resolution

If any of these are missing, the story will probably end up a dud, so thinking about things like a hook, an inciting event that begins the conflict, a try/fail cycle of difficulty to overcome (more on this tension-building step next month), a clear climactic event, and a satisfying (not necessarily happy) resolution are important no matter the length.

A hook not only grabs attention as the first thing that happens in the story, in a short fiction, it also needs to introduce us to the main character and gives a glimpse into their “normal” world. Without an idea of “normal” we might not realize the stakes the character is facing at the inciting event where your character must make a decision to enter the unknown conflict ahead.

“The inciting incident . . . sets the story in motion . . . [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about and draws the main character into the story line.”

Syd Fields

So, your inciting event gives rise to a key event, which means the point of no return. Once the character faces that key event he cannot escape involvement in the inciting event that opened up his can of worms and distrupted “normal.”

In a short story, we focus on just one (sometimes two) story lines. In longer fiction, you will often have an (A) story line and a (B) story line that run parallel and sometimes cross or diverge depending on your story’s needs. So, any conflict will be centered in your short story on that one inciting event and the plot that follows out of it. This is where a try-fail cycle will build the conflict of the story to the climax where the character will face the antagonist. Depending on the kind of short story you are writing, the antagonist might be a person, the environment, or even the protagonist’s own self.

Every story needs resolution after the climax to satsify the readers and bookend the beginning, giving the character a “new normal.” Does this mean it has to be happy? Nope! That really depends on the story and the promises you made with the inciting event, conflict, and climax.

Below is a filled-out example of my above visual story arc template. I have outlined my first book, The Beauty Thief, using this format to see how it aligns.

Challenge

Take one of your previous stories or your PARK story for January and see if you can match up any of the plot points on the story arc graph!

Feel free to open a discussion in the comments below! Happy writing!

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15 thoughts on “A Story Arc: Even Short Fiction Needs One

  1. There a thing…commented on Marks post thinking it was somewhere else….. still, even pantsing does follow the story arc concept. In my case I write, or did once upon a time, as if it’s a book unfolding. Which it is. My chapters average 5000 words but all end with a conflict hook leading into the next chapter. Something that makes a reader not want to stop reading until they find the resolution. By then, hopefully, they drift into the next hook, find another conflict and need the next chapter to find resolution and so on.

    Obviously this can’t carry without subscribing into the main story arc. I see the smaller arcs as a way to get a reader investing in the character(s) be they antagonist or otherwise. It allows showing rather than telling. That part is harder in a prompt write though as space is very limited. Often my BB stories carried over, time with similar or same characters allowed the showing to build up to anyone regularly reading. This is tricky though as new people can wonder what the heck is going on.

    I think this aspect is where BB can help in terms of constructive criticism. Trying to see if you can spot the arc elements and if not read it again then politely mention it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think “as if it’s a book unfolding” is a very neat description of the pantser “lifestyle”. 🙂

      I don’t think I’ve yet done a BB story that uses characters or settings from a previous one, but where practical, I do like to try to give the reader the impression that they have already read the previous chapter, and want to know what the next chapter holds, even if it’s just to see the character get a slapping for ending on an awful pun. I think that one of the challenges of writing for a BB prompt is leaving out explicit elements of the arc, but giving enough hints that the reader inserts them anyway.

      That’s my (short) story, anyway, and I’m editing as needed; 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Agreed. I think that’s why I write that way. I once did a course that was hot on planning. I guess it suits some writers but whenever I tried it then started writing nothing really stuck to the plan. It was Kings book “On Writing” that validated my opinion way back. If you haven’t read it then it’s a must in my humble opinion.

        Prompt writing has its own purpose too. Not only inspiring ideas but given word constraints disallows waffle and actually helps tighten up the craft. Spot word redundancies and you’re a good way to writing better. The increased word count helps too as you can almost think of it a short chapter. Build in them what happens next at the close. Comments suggesting there’s more to tell I’d take as kudos 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        • One of the things that I have noticed with regard to word limits is how my head has become trained to build a story in 1k words. When I sit down to do a BB piece, it usually comes out at between 900 and 1100.
          As a small aside, I’ve done a handful of live reading events and for those the brief was for a 10 minute slot, for which a 1k story is about the right length. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • I used to shy away from short stories. I found it hard to condense long writing form down. Possibly because I bounced 5 manuscripts one after the other. My angle in became backstory exploration with little intent to incorporate them, but use them to see what my characters would do in random situations. I also once did an interview series in an A to Z challenge. The concept was to use a fictitious interviewer going through all characters, creatures and places that appeared in the books. That ended up spawning the Amanuensis. Which lead to a world build that became huge.

            Figured short stories for me just blow up more ideas 🙄

            Kudos on the live readings though. Was that a book club type of thing or something larger?

            Liked by 1 person

          • I think the big trick in writing shorts is learning an extreme version of deciding what to leave out whilst still telling the tale. You need that skill for novels, but for shorts it becomes one of the big keys. Then you need its counterpart – working out how to use tiny hints to tell the reader stuff you can’t leave out but don’t have the space to present in detail.

            It takes practice, and particularly since starting doing BB, I’ve written a lot more shorts, and grown better at doing them.

            The other thing I’ve noticed I do these days is tht when I have an idea for a story, be it long or short, where I used to write a few notes I now I often write a short story to encapsulate it, which further keeps the short-writing skills going. The recent “elephant” story on BB was based on one of those story-to-record-a-story.

            The live reading stuff was actually a series of events in London organised by an outfit called Virtual Futures, who more usually arrange events exploring real things that sound like science fiction.
            They did a series of events called “Future Fictions” and put out an open call for submissions with a theme for each evening.
            It’s completely crazy – I travelled about 250 miles (each way!) from Cornwall to London to spend 10 minutes on stage reading my stories. I think I did the first two in 2018 and then another pair in 2019 – so that’s a grand total of about 2000 miles. It didn’t run in 2020 and lockdown would have hit it anyway.
            The most recent ones have been via Zoom, but my entry for that didn’t get selected, although they did ask for the rights to included it in the next anthology, which was rather satisfying.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m too much of a pantser to do this in advance, although I have been known to do it retrospectively when things need fixing, or as with my current novel, when I completely lose the plot. 🙂

    Looking back at my “Park” story, I suppose the hook is the silly song reference at the start.
    I’m not sure I’ve got an explicit inciting event, but there’s obvious conflict when the silly song reference segues into the “local militia” turning up.

    I’m not sure there’s a climax as such, and I’m not quite sure what you would call the business of the not-granite statues.

    As for resolution, well it’s really the opening for a much longer story, so in that sense “Illegal Parking” is really one big hook with a sort of promise/foreshadowing of what might come.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bit like me then. No real plan or design just see what happens. Although after my absence I’ve forgotten just about everything including how to write 😂

      Just added you to the story post too

      Liked by 1 person

      • And remember to say “look what I did” when it magically all comes together. 🙂

        Of course, sometimes it doesn’t, or it just hangs. Last night, my partner said “just give me half an hour”, so I randomly opened a story file that was nothing more than a title and wrote 1k, which really just flowed, and then this afternoon waiting for one of her routine check-ups, I added another 1k, and now… sorry, no clue what comes next. Maybe I’ll come back to it one day and know the answer.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oddly whilst in limbo I did read almost every manuscript I’ve written alongside reorganising things a bit. Much of it seemed better than I first thought. Bit rough, but nothing that said why bother 🙄

          Time management seems lacking and I see you are maxing those moments. 1k here and there soon builds up the habit. I think my big problem was realising my pantsing world build required more than just pantsing. It’s got to the point where it needs planning better. Otherwise it will cease to work. It reminds me of a George Martin interview. He got about three books in before realising he was scratching. He compared that point to Tolkien. The latter was an iceberg whose story lay on top with the bulk of build plus back story lying underneath. At the point Martin described GOT as the tip of a mountain on the top of the berg. Increasing complexity requires the foundations of the iceberg to function

          Liked by 2 people

          • I haven’t previously had to do any “proper” world-building, but the current book, which is part of a series, is increasingly needing it, along with plot-tracking, simply because it has become so convoluted. I still don’t really world-build, but I have added a simple “wiki app” to my life so that I can make notes that are searchable, keeping track of world-build and significant plot points. For whatever reason, my strange mind not only keeps track of a lot of this stuff, but it usually manages to stitched things together with no prior planning, but now that I am at book 3 (about to start on 4) out of a 4 (or 5) book sequence, I need to write a few things down. Even so, I have no real plot or plan for book 4, even though it is the point where events over the first three really collide, which is why it may turn out to be a 5 book series.

            I did have a specific event planned for book 3, a really big and important plot point that I realised was coming somewhere around the time I was writing the end of book 1, but I discovered last year that there simply wasn’t room for it. Now it will happen in book 4. Probably. It really has to happen before the possible “plot overflow” book 5, because I don’t think I can face doing a book 6.

            To be fair to me, I started writing book 3 somewhere around 2014 and it sat like a rusting hulk until about two years ago when I started trying to make sense of it, which literally took months before I could resume writing. It is far too long, and that was even with about 20k hacked out. The first two just got written in one go and went really smoothly, whilst 3 has been a slog. I hope that 4 will get done this year. 🙂

            At times like this, I can see the value of plotting, but it isn’t going to happen. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

          • The world build I find gives a major assist into continuity. It gets you familiar with characters and environment. I don’t call it planning as such, more a way of developing a spine upon which a story can grow. One big flaw I see is inconsistency in narrative. Pantsing is always in danger of realising that unwittingly. Parts of chapters forgotten or with divergence that whimper out. I think that’s what Martin was referring to. More a history of the world or character so a reader sees them as real. I don’t think that falls as plotting. More an insurance what’s written falls in line with a consistent set of rules or boundaries that the writing creates. Knowing what a character can or can’t do through backstory prevents a sudden divergence.

            Eg, a character goes to buy something. That alone starts the build. What’s the shop? Who works there, what’s the supply chain, how does it support an economy? What’s the hierarchy of town structure, rules, policing etc. if my character is here then what can they do and what can’t they.

            If you use an Uber weapon then why is it Uber, what’s its weakness or use constraint? If those can’t be answered it looks like an item knocked up to beat the impossible.

            As you may guess I could write a post just on this topic lol.

            However re books…similar here. I have several gathering dust. Not the best way forwards methinks

            Liked by 1 person

          • I have a different major assist for continuity – my partner reads and says things like “didn’t you kill that character five chapters ago?” 🙂

            My sense of humour aside, as you say, continuity and trailing threads are the great menace of the pantser. I’ve got quite adept at keeping those under control, but with the larger and more intricate work I have to start keeping notes of what happened, and key scenes/events that have occurred to me as I write and really ought to go in later.

            I think it’s in the nature of pantsing that the book gets written in a linear fashion, even with the current WIP which uses time travel without due care and attention, and seriously rejects the usual convention that history can’t be changed. However, things do occur to me that are clearly far ahead in the chapter sequence and I will then write the scene or the chapter, accepting that by the time I come to use it I will need to re-write it because it no longer fits properly. So that future chapter, as initially written, is bordering on planning, or at least a piece of world/plot building, something done just to record the idea.

            The other thing which occurred to me as I was writing this is that sometimes I have pantsed a story backwards, so to speak. For my second urban fantasy, all I had to start with was the final scene, and somehow I found a start and filled in the middle, with a crazy bit of trouble I called the “black hole of pantser” in the middle where I had no idea how to bridge a gap and just kept writing and throwing ideas at the problem until it worked. (Which I will admit sounds nuts even to me.)

            I suppose, ultimately, I go with the idea that whilst most writers seem to regard themselves as either planner or pantser, being 100% at the end of the spectrum is rare and so I am a pantser with a light garnish of planning, and a seasoning of brainstorming when it all goes horribly wrong.

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