I Have A Cunning Plot


So, now you want to write a short story, and you have a pretty good idea. Great. So… how do you set about it.

If you set about it as I originally did, you either write a beginning and mill around looking for the next bit (and never find it) or you start adding complications as you know the character and the world, and then end up at ten thousand words realizing you have two chapters of a novel.

Part of the way to get over this, of course, is to figure out the plot.

Plots aren’t “just what happens.”

Or rather, they are “just what happens” but that is not the same as something interesting happening.

(Sighs and taps fingers on the desk.) Look, a story has to have a satisfying chain of events, leading to a conclusion that does something for the reader. (Unless you’re writing literary and plotless, which is your problem, bub. I think it’s no longer illegal in most states, but don’t come crying to me if you grow hair on the palms of your hands. Oh, and remember to do it in private.)

The purpose of any story telling is to have your reader experience emotion, preferably the emotion you want them to experience and not some other emotion at random. (Or as happens with a lot of books I try to read, vague disgust and a sense that several electrons/trees were killed in vain.) To do that, you must take the reader along with you on a ride that you have planned and which ends with some sort of emotional pay off.

In novels this is more attenuated (and if there’s interest I’ll do a novel one after this) and you can have “rest” periods in the middle of the more tense sequences, etc.

But in a short story, each movement in the story needs to lead to the denouement and heighten the emotion.

So, even if you’re a pantser by choice you should try to plot your stories, if not in advance, then after the fact.

There are various ways to do this, and it’s important to remember the tool is not the story, just like the map is not the journey. If one tool doesn’t work for you, try another.

The most normal way to plot is the W plot. You start at a high point, something happens that sends the character spiraling down. The character tries to solve it (a little higher, but not as high as the first peak, which is why the W is a misnomer,) something in the way he tries to solve it, sends it spiraling down further than the first dip. Character tries again, rises with hope, falls when it fails. This is also known as try-fail sequence and hard wired into us is the expectation there will be three of these before solution, though it’s been known to be two or four. In short stories this is often two.

The other way to plot involves The Hero’s Journey and gets way more complex. A good summary of the points to hit on The Hero’s Journey (Originally Joseph Campbell – I was hit on this on another post where I mentioned because someone thought I said Pixar invented it. Pixar rather distilled it from The Hero’s Journey which can be touchy feely and too mushy for words. They used their “points list” to make their big hits. They no longer use it.) is in the middle of a book called The Writer’s Journey, which I’m sure you can find at your library.

Face with all these tools, when I started writing stories and was completely blind, I made my own, of course. This came in the form of a “short story cheat sheet”. I no longer can find it, but I can sort of recreate it here, with an imaginary short story’s points filled in. (Because the way the day is going, I can’t think of even my favorite shorts, and because I don’t have permission from their authors to use that. Because it’s for an example, I’m going to use a radically simple story. Also a little silly.)

Character Poly Polideuces, emigrating with her family to newly terraformed Mars. She’s ten years old and a good kid.

Character’s Obvious Problem During transfer on the moon, Poly’s puppy, Pimpernel, runs away. Poly must find him in ten minutes or she will have to leave without him.

Character’s Hidden Problem Poly knows her parents aren’t thrilled with her insisting on taking the dog, because she doesn’t seem that attached to him and has been very bad at looking after him in the past. And besides, Poly’s parents will have to sacrifice protein rations the first year to feed Pimpernel. They wouldn’t mind if Poly really loved him, but though Poly says she does, she doesn’t act it.

Precipitating incident: Pimpernel runs away while the baggage is being weighed for Mars. Poly’s parents say if she doesn’t find him, Pimpernel will have to be left behind.

First attempt at solution/fail: Poly looks in the most obvious place, the Moon’s Marvelous Cafeteria, where she thinks Pimpernel might have been attracted by the smell of food. He’s not there.

Second attempt at solution/fail: She looks in the cleaning closet at the landing bay, and not only isn’t Pimpernel there, but a scary alien Janitor chases her.

Facing up to real problem/mirror moment: Poly realizes she’s been neglecting Pimpernel for weeks, and was holding him too tight on the shuttle up, and scolded him when he squirmed. Perhaps what Pimpernel really is looking for is love.

Third attempt at solution/climax/win Poly looks for kids around her age, and finds a little girl, in a back corridor. She’s the daughter of one of the workers at the station, and has no kids to play with, and she’s playing with Pimpernel and Pimpernel clearly doesn’t want to leave her. Poly decides to do the best thing she can for Pimpernel, and gives him to the little girl. She still catches her rocket. The end.

Stop giggling. It’s a perfect structure. I told you the story would be stupid.

Now, go forth and do a plot for your own story.

Next week: character plots, action plots, mixed plots, oh, my.


  1. Somewhere in there a character needs killed for naming a dog Pimpernel. A barely veiled attempt to make us dislike the mutt as a scoundrel by using a borderline homophone as nasty as niggardly.

  2. The Scarlet Pimpernel was my first thought. So I thought slightly foppish hero.

  3. No wonder those stories of mine don’t grab me. If I don’t make them pull me emotionally, why should anyone else care?

  4. That second paragraph…
    It’s like you’ve been looking at my hard drive.

    Are you sure you don’t work for the NSA?

  5. Any plot might seem stupid at first glance. The real talent is seeing the magic in mundane. This plot isn’t too different than the plot of the first movie I saw at the Ghibli Museum theatre. If you think a plot is too stupid just think, “what would Miyazaki do with this?”

  6. The thing that helped me the most in setting up my Baen submission was researching and realizing the Hero’s Journey need not be complete in a short.

    The same path, the same destination, just a different stopping point for the story.

    The other was coming to terms with the reality that the Hero’s Journey need not be epic. Or, more accurately, that the framework can be used to layout smaller movements in character development even as larger portions of the epic arc are in progress.

    This gave me something to hang the story on and cut it to pattern.

  7. Thank you for this.

    I hacked out a short story plot outline using your ‘cheat sheet’ and found it very helpful. Part way through, I found that a) I had not actually grappled with the ‘middle bits’ of this story before (nor definitively defined the emotional interaction between two characters) and b) I was very curious as to what the plot would look like if I did it either as Hero’s journey or W.

    Which led to a bit of an epiphany – this story-thing is malleable. I can take off bits here and paste on bits there.

    Which yeah, I *knew* before, but maybeso didn’t *understand*.

  8. PSA: I have set up a Google Group as an online resource for us to use. Right now it is set up as a web forum, which means we can post and discuss things online. There is also email notification. Basically, this is intended to be a place where we can hold an online workshop — submissions, comments, discussion — about the ideas which Sarah is posting about.

    I think the next step is for anyone who wants to contact me — mbarker at mit dot edu — and ask to become a member. Then I get the fun of sending you an invitation and pow — you’re in.

    I hope this helps!

  9. Character: Thomas, a teenager raised to be a monk (excess child of the nobility)

    Character’s obvious problem: Horny

    Character’s hidden problem: Not suitable for the monastic life

    Precipitating incident: Character attempts to summon a succubus. Gets one that is incredibly nerdy and really not interested in sex.

    First fail: Thinks “no” is just part of the game, effectively tries to rape the succubus until she hurts him.

    Second fail: The following night, tries to buy the succubus’s favors with money, food, and his soul.

    Mirror moment: The succubus asks him how come he doesn’t just find one of his own kind, and he realizes being raised to a monk doesn’t mean he has too.

    Climax/solution: Thomas tells the abbot he is leaving. The abbot gives him his blessing.

  10. What’s the word count on a short story, novella, novel?
    AND How do you find time to do this, According to Hoyt, AND run Sarah’s Diner in the Bar?

  11. Can’t think or feel very well at the moment, so I’ll have to stick to ripping out the nearest suitable ‘plot’ I can find in an existing planned project, until I get some sleep.

    John is a lawyer, and drinks.

    He is trying to grow a practice in a semi-active warzone.

    He doesn’t realize that he really hates the practice of law. Which ties into his support for his native polity, and the values of his upbringing.

    I’m not sure about what really precipitates things. I know he ends up tangentially involved in a mobster’s inheritance, and that the war gets much hotter.

    So, given the speed of events, his failures are perhaps failures to resolve anything with arbitration and mediation. Perhaps ending with the mobster’s heirs explaining that the law is not relevant to what they intend to do.

    Then, he would have to face himself, realize he hates the practice of law, and start actively using other methods to solve problems.

    After the rubble stops bouncing, he closes his practice, formally resigns from the bar, and quits drinking.

    Vague as all this is, no wonder I’ve got little clue about that project.

  12. Character: Sandy Simpson, member of maintenance crew for L-5 station.

    Character’s Obvious Problem: hull breach

    Character’s Hidden Problem – ???

    Precipitating incident: Station struck by something, probably meteorites.

    First attempt at solution/fail: Get hole patched and notices another one.

    Second attempt at solution/fail: Close second hole and discover multiple impact sites.

    Facing up to real problem/mirror moment: Do the micro hole need to be covered or just the larger one?

    Third attempt at solution/climax/win: Pushes herself to point of fatigue and nearly loses contact with station, calls for relief team.

    Would flash backs be considered part of precipitating events? The story is intended as a tribute of sorts to Shriner’s Hospitals, so there are several flash backs to the MC after an accident and at Shriners for treatment. (Yeah, that means it has a kinda sappy ending.)

  13. May I suggest the O’Henry strategy: Devise a twisted final paragraph, plan backwards from that point, then begin writing toward that twist.

      1. And now, for the rest of the day, I’m going to be hearing “Who loves short shorts? We love short shorts…” Oh, well, at least it isn’t that one about the castaways on the islan…

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