Short Story Structure and Author Techniques Print out of the lessons below



Short Story Diagram






 Character_ Types

Flash back



Point of View




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What is plot?

A plot is the sequence of events that make up a story. A plot needs a motivating purpose to drive the story to its resolution, and a connection between these events. If you watch a sequel to a movie and random characters are introduced without being in the first episode, there is a string of unconnected scenes and you will probably be frustrated because the plot makes no sense. Unless these scenes are tied together in some way, it will be very hard to connect to what happened previously. So, we could say that plot is the CAUSAL sequence of events that make up a story. Of course, this "sequence" doesn't necessarily have to be in order - detective stories or thrillers can often work backwards or jump from one event to another - however, everything does come together. Keep in mind that stories can be plot driven, character driven or theme driven.

The Elements of plot structure explained

Gustav Freytag (1816 - 1895) was a German dramatist and novelist. Why is he important? He came up with the structure for the way stories are told in ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama. This analysis is known as Freytag's analysis. His analysis consisted of dividing a story into FIVE parts. However, note that a short story may only need two events after the set up.


You should be able to identify the parts of this diagram, and be able to "map out" a short story according to the diagram.

Analysis of separate parts.

This is the introduction of story - background information that is needed to properly understand it. This information can include the protagonist, antagonist, the setting and so forth. The inciting incident occurs here - the initial event which triggers the rest of the story. In other words, what was it that put everything in motion? Inciting incidents are not always obvious - you may not even catch them when reading the story.

Rising Action
Rising action is what occurs leading up to the climax. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry must go through a set of tasks to reach where the sorcerer's stone is hidden where he will have the final battle. These tasks are the "rising action", and the final battle would be considered "the climax".

The climax is considered the high point - the most exciting part - of the story. This is where all the rising action and conflict building up in the story finally reaches the peak. It is usually the moment of greatest danger or decision-making for the protagonist. The turning point can be considered the incident right before the climax, or can also be used as another name for climax. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the climax occurs when Juliet stabs herself.

Falling Action
The falling action deals with events which occur right after the climax. These events are usually the after-effects of the climax.

Here is the end of the falling action and the conclusion to the story. There is usually a release of dramatic tension and anxiety (also known as catharsis). It can also be the that portion at the end of the plot that reveals the final outcome of its conflicts or the solution of its mysteries.
Dénouement originates from the old French word denoer, which meant "to untie". So you could say that dénouement is the unraveling or untying of the complexities of a plot.
Keep in mind, that sometimes stories have endings with a lot of unanswered questions. It is up to your discretion on whether you want to identify a resolution, or argue that a resolution in the story was never fully developed.




A clash of actions, ideas, desires or wills. Every story has conflict. There are 5 main types, organized into 2 groups.


  • Human Against himself- a character must struggle against him or herself. The conflict is inside the character.

  • Human against his/her own nature - conflict with some element in her/his own nature; may be physical, mental, emotional, or moral. This is usually called a dilemma. The character must decide what to do, but the decision is not easy.


  • Human vs. Human - One character has a direct conflict with another. A common example is the good guy against the bad guy, although this is certainly not always the case.

  • Human vs. Environment - The character struggles against the situation he or she is in. This can take many forms, including society, nature, or an organization, such as government. In this type of conflict, "environment" is any place the character is within, which challenges the character somehow.

  • Human vs. The Unknown.- The unknown includes God, gods, religion, fate, ghosts, the supernatural, luck, destiny, or anything else that is beyond the control of human beings. In this case, the character might question why God or gods allow the character to suffer or succeed. The character might be in a conflict with a ghost for some reason, or simply have bad luck. In this case, the character rarely wins, but the way in which the character tries to survive is important to showing the quality of the character.



Character Development

A CHARACTER is the leading figure (s) of the story.  In a short story, a major characteristic is the fact that there are few characters. Since the author has only a few pages in which to describe the character and his personality, he calls upon several methods to help the reader get a better "picture of that character. So, we learn about character in the following ways:

  • PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION--is the character tall, short or fat?  Is he wearing a suit or rags?  Is he clean looking or scruffy? etc..

  • THE CHARACTER'S OWN WORDS--What does he say about himself? Does he speak with an accent?  Does he speak using good English? etc..

  • THE CHARACTER'S ACTIONS--What does he do?  How does he act? How does he treat animals, other people, himself?  What is his job? etc..

  • THE CHARACTER'S THOUGHTS--What is he thinking?  Is his thinking rational?

  •  OTHER CHARACTERS' ACTIONS/SPEECH ABOUT THE MAIN CHARACTER--What do others say about the character?  How do others treat that character? etc..

Main Characters

  • Protagonist - the central character, who can be a nice person or an awful one, or somewhere in between. Sometimes, a protagonist can be an anti-hero, a hero that is seriously troubled, but has slight heroic qualities. The reader identifies and usually sympathizes with the protagonist.

  • Antagonist - The characters working against the protagonist. The protagonist can be his/her own antagonist in the case of internal conflict. Groups of people and organizations can also be antagonists, but you should not confuse an antagonist with part of a general conflict in the story.

We learn about characters in 2 different ways:

  • Direct Presentation - author tells us straight out, by exposition or analysis, or through another character.

  • Indirect Presentation - author shows us the character in action; the reader infers what a character is like from what she/he thinks, or says, or does.

Character Types

Flat or Round: A flat character is known by one or two traits. A round character is complex and many-sided. We learn much about what he/she thinks, feels, and wants.
Unique or Stock: A stock character is a stereotyped character (a mad scientist, the absent- minded professor, the cruel mother-in-law). It is a common type of character. We can often predict what the character will simply by the type of character. For instance, we can predict that a mad scientist will be evil and driven towards doing something terrible. A unique character is any character that is not one of these types. Unique characters are not predictable in this way. They face unique situations and conflicts.
Static vs. Dynamic: A static character remains the same from the beginning of the plot to the end. His or her opinions and behavior do not change. The character learns nothing from the story's events. A dynamic (developing) character undergoes permanent change. This change must be within the possibilities of the character, sufficiently motivated, and allowed sufficient time for change. The character learns something from the story, and is different at the end.



What exactly is this elusive thing called theme?

Often, it is the controlling idea or central insight. It can be the following:

  •  a revelation of human character

  • may be stated briefly or at great length

  • a theme is not the simply the moral of the story, it is a more central insight about the story. Sometimes, the theme and a moral are very similar.

  • Just remember that a theme is more than a simple statement. Theme is an explanation of what we learn and see from the story.

  • All the elements of the short story are interwoven as the author unravels his plot and presents his theme.

  • It is thought of as the purpose behind the author's writing.

The theme of any form of literature is the basic message the author is trying to communicate: to his readers.  It is the morals/values/issues or simple ideas the story presents.  What lesson does the  story try to teach?  What reason does the author have in the writing it?

Theme as Statement:

  • Theme must be expressible in the form of a statement - not "motherhood" but "Motherhood sometimes has more frustration than reward." Theme must be stated as a generalization about life; names of characters or specific situations in the plot are not to be used when stating a theme.

  • However, when trying to explain the theme of the story in a short story, you use whatever information you feel necessary from the story. It must not be a generalization larger than is justified by the terms of the story. It is the central and unifying concept of the story. 

  • Any statement that reduces a theme to some familiar saying or cliché? should be avoided. Do not use "A stitch in time saves nine," "You can't judge a book by its cover, " "Fish and guests smell in three days," and so on.

  • The theme of a fable is its moral. The theme of a parable is its teaching. The theme of a piece of fiction is its view about life and how people behave.

  • In fiction, the theme is not intended to teach or preach and in fact, it is not presented directly at all. You extract it from the characters, action, and setting that make up the story. In other words, you must figure out the theme yourself.

The writer's task is to communicate on a common ground with the reader. Although the particulars of your experience may be different from the details of the story, the general underlying truths behind the story may be just the connection that both you and the writer are seeking. This is theme.


  • Irony - a term with a range of meanings, all of them involving some sort of discrepancy or incongruity. Irony is used to suggest the difference between appearance and reality, between expectation and fulfillment. There are three main types of irony:

  • Verbal irony - the opposite is said from what is intended.  (sarcasm) Example - "Wasn't that a smart move!!"

  • Dramatic irony - the contrast between what a character says and what the reader knows to true.  (double meaning:) People on the deck of a boat think the passenger who fell overboard is waving and wave back.

  • Irony of situation - discrepancy between appearance and reality, or between expectation and fulfillment, or between what is and what would seem appropriate.


Symbolism - A literary symbol means something itself in the story but also suggests a wealth of meaning beyond what it actually is. An object, a situation, and actions can all be symbolic tools. Symbols are essential to the short story writer because they convey so
much in so short a space.
The meaning of a literary symbol must be established and supported by the entire context of the story. A symbol has its meaning inside not outside a story. To be called a symbol, an item must suggest a meaning different in kind from its literal meaning.

A symbol has complex meaning;

  • It  not only has a "literal" meaning, but also additional meaning (s) beyond the literal. A symbol may have more than one meaning. In fact, the most significant symbols do convey an indefinite range of meanings.

  • In the context of Christian symbolism, a cross can refer to suffering and sacrifice. Therefore, in the right context, a cross can suggest a much wider range of meaning than its simple, literal meaning.

  • A knight may mean good manners or chivalry.

  • Some color symbols are: White - Innocence and purity; Yellow - New life and new beginnings; Brown - Poverty and earth.

  • The story itself must furnish a clue that a detail is to be taken symbolically - symbols nearly always signal their existence by emphasis, repetition, or position.




The MOOD of any form of literature is the feeling the author tries to create within the reader through his description of incident and setting combined.  Particular details are selected to help bring out this MOOD.  As you read, watch for word choice, specific descriptions, figurative language, etc..  Mood is often compared to ATMOSPHERE in a story.  (Example moods include sadness, horror, joy, etc.)

Atmosphere - This element has a closer connection to the setting because the setting often determines the atmosphere. The atmosphere is the mood and/or tone of the story. Physical surroundings affect a character and determine his mood. Atmosphere is usually established at the beginning of the story. It takes in characters, clothing, furniture, natural surroundings, light, darkness, shadows, weather.

The mood/atmosphere of a short story is established through detailed descriptions of the settings, people, and time frame of a story. For example, if you are writing a scary story about a haunted house, the mood will be dark and foreboding. The setting should be dark – muted colors and shadowy corners – and the characters should be feeling a mixture of excitement and delicious fear.  If you set your story in the seventieth century, you must insure that you stay true to the era and do your research to support the conditions of the time. Through your research you will discover the conditions under which you must place your characters, use words that frame the conditions and show the atmosphere of the time.

If, however, you are writing about Marilyn’s Expedition to Egypt and all the adventures that entail, the mood should be charged with light and be bright/hot/often suffocating in feel. Sunny skies, sand dunes, excitement in the air; so are you imagining it?



The SETTING of any form of literature is the where and the when of the narrative.  As you read, ask yourself the importance of the time and the place.  Could the story have occurred elsewhere or at another time?  What specific details of setting are emphasized and how do these details affect the mood/atmosphere of the story.

The setting gives the reader a better sense of the story. It allows them to visualize what is going on and connect with the characters better. The setting also helps with the mood of the story. It helps tie the story together, the theme must coincide with the setting, if not the story would not make sense to the audience. The setting pulls the reader right into the story. It is especially important to give a good description of the setting if it is an important part of the main character's story.




Techniques Author's Use to Help Bring their story to life.

Authors generally use IMAGERY to convey the story. They show the action rather than tell it.

There are two types of Imagery -

Sensory imagery - Images that appeal to the 5 senses: visual (sight); auditory (hearing); Kinesthetic (touch); gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell).









rich aroma





Figurative imagery - Includes the list below.






a direct comparison between two unlike objects or persons without using "like or as"

It is an implied comparison.

She is a bear in the morning. [implied , cranky]

She roared, "Stop."[lions roar]



a comparison of two unlike objects or persons that have point (s) in common - use of "like or as" Annie wandered lonely as a cloud down the dark street. [without purpose]

Sherri is like a yellow rose that bends gently in the breeze. [could be easily persuaded, but has a sunny and likable disposition.




giving personal attributes to inanimate objects, animals or abstract ideas The blast of the rifle left the silence shattered. [made the rifle person-like with feelings]

The sun smiled down on the worshippers and kissed their white skin. [the sun is now given attributes of a live being]


addressing or speaking to the dead as if living; to an object as if it is alive; to the absent as if they are present and able to understand the speaker "Walk softly, March, forbear the bitter blow."

Rex, you were such bitter-sorrow to me and I will miss you.


an exaggeration used in order to make a point or to emphasize I have told you a million times to clean your room.

She cried a river and drowned the whole world.


Figurative Language
The repetition of usually initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables 
The wild and woolly walrus waits and wonders when we'll walk by 
A resemblance of sound in words or syllables 
holy & stony 
Fleet feet sweep by sleeping geese
A word or phrase that has become overly familiar or commonplace 
No pain, no gain
The language peculiar to a group of people 
She sings at the top of her lungs
Naming a thing or an action by imitating the sound associated with it
buzz, hiss, roar, woof 



FLASHBACK is an occurrence that often takes place in literature whereby the author "flashes back" into time in an attempt to bring us up to date as to why certain things are the way they are.  It is another technique author's use to create interest

All stories have a time frame—the amount of time the author has decided to cover in a particular narrative.  Any events that happen before this time frame begins, is called back-story. Writers use flashback to tell the back-story and show character motivation. If the main character won't go to funerals, for example, a quick trip back in time to when he/she watched as his/er mother wasted away and the subsequent funeral will increase reader understanding and empathy.

Back-story must be shown, however, not told. The terms back-story and flashback come from film terminology, and knowing this should be a reminder that their purpose is to dramatize the past, not summarize it. The sentence he thought back to that horrible summer when he sat beside his mother's bed as she withered away from cancer is not yet a proper flashback.

Any time you interrupt the forward moving story, you risk losing reader interest, so dramatizing the interruption decreases that risk. For example, you might write something like:

He had spent the entire month of July in hospital, at his mother's bedside. Her long fingers had felt like bones bundled in thin silk, and they offered no resistance when he squeezed them. When at last he felt some slight pressure, almost indiscernible, he watched her face. She opened her eyes and met his gaze for just a moment before the muscles of her face contracted, as if in pain. Her eyes clamped shut in a last grimace, and each inhalation came several seconds after the last. Joe watched a vein below her ear pulse like the heart of a frightened bird. Even when her breathing stopped, the pulse beat on for a second or two more. He watched until it went still and all the lines on her face smoothed away, and then he laid her hand, still loose in his, atop the crisp, white sheet.

It was time, he thought now, to get past all that.

A passage like this aims to put readers at the bedside along with the character, and it contains emotional facts, rather than irrelevant material information. The colour of the walls or the number of people in the room is not important in this scene. The historical recollection allows readers to understand, at an emotional level, why Joe has an aversion to hospitals. A longer scene would include dialogue, but it is best to keep the recollections as short as possible. [source] You will find the techniques in using flashback at this site.

Be careful, editors often don't like flashbacks that slow the action down.




SUSPENSE is the device used in many stories that keeps the reader wanting to read more.  The reader desires to find out what will happen next; he becomes more and more involved in the story because of suspense.

Please note that suspense is not restricted to the "exciting" or "dramatic" type of story.  A good, humorous tale is also full of suspense in many respects.

All writers should work suspense into their stories. Suspense doesn't have to involve vans flipping and psychopaths pursuing the protagonist. There is suspense in everything from a tense classroom meeting to a downhill snowboarding competition, where the heroine risks being compromised by a cad. Lives don't have to be at stake. You, as the author, can generate suspense out of uncomplicated and mundane things, as long as they are important to the story, such as whether the arrogant hero will pass under the overpass just before the hail of snowballs tumble down.

Foreshadowing is one tool you can use to heighten the suspense. It gets a separate section because it can get pretty complicated, and it can be hard to foreshadow events just right.

First, you need to make sure both your protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain) are very solid and well-defined. This applies to any main characters as well.

Read more: How to Create Suspense in a Story |
First, you need to make sure both your protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain) are very solid and well-defined. This applies to any main characters as well.

Read more: How to Create Suspense in a Story |
First, you need to make sure both your protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain) are very solid and well-defined. This applies to any main characters as well.

Read more: How to Create Suspense in a Story |
A common problem with action stories is putting more focus on the events rather than the characters. You have to keep in mind your readers will likely keep reading based on how much they care about and believe the characters. If you need help in creating characters, I've included a free template below. The best "name generator" for characters is also free--your local phone book

Read more: How to Create Suspense in a Story |

Begin with an intriguing first chapter that hooks the reader into the story. Skip background data in favor of beginning with an action scene. Rather than explaining that the main character grew up in a wealthy family and attended a foreign finishing school, begin with, “Diana crouched behind a packing crate in the darkness, listening for any sound from her pursuer. Her years of training at a fine French finishing school had not included a course in running for your life.”

Read more: How to Write a Good Suspense Story |

The author may foreshadow, or give hints, about what will happen later in the story. This technique works well when writing fantasy or mystery.

Foreshadowing occurs when a writer gives the reader a hint, or shadow, of what will happen later in the story. It can make the story more real and create more suspense. Mystery writers use foreshadowing a lot to give the reader clues as to the identity of the murderer.  

The part of the story that the foreshadowing is referring to may come soon after the foreshadowing or much later. Occasionally an author will foreshadow with a false clue or hint which is called a red herring. It is a deliberate attempt to mislead the reader, and is widely used by mystery writers.  

To answer the question, “What does the literary device foreshadowing mean?” you need to understand how an author shows it. Sometimes, foreshadowing is seen through a prediction by a character, or comes up in the dialogue between characters. Often it is an object, like a loaded gun, that will lead to the killer’s identity.

Sometimes the foreshadowing is very subtle or symbolic of future events, like a neighbor, a disagreement, or an event that seems inconsequential at the time. An example would be a character that complains of a headache and turns out later to have a brain tumor. However, the author may not want the audience to guess the outcome, so he would have to be careful and not make the foreshadowing too obvious.

Some writers have described suspense as being like a roller coaster. The trip up to the top is the suspense, and the fast trip down the hill is the pay-off.

Make the Climax Live Up to the Suspense

As we all know, sometimes the anticipation is more exciting than the actual event. A nice sunny Saturday can turn into a snowbound weekend filled with cooking and cleaning. A suspenseful story can sputter out when the solution is unfolded. How do you plant the best ending for your story? Start by thinking of the reader. What would interest, shock, and shake the reader? Is the resolution too pat? If so, make it harder for your characters.  Think of your characters, too, of course. Do they have enough obstacles? Are they reacting in character to what happens. Make sure the villains get an appropriate comeuppance.  Take them to the mountain and let them find their own way home.

If the suspense is good enough, readers may forgive a relatively weak ending. However, they may be less likely to pick up your next book. The best writers of suspense know that they can get away with teasing the reader for only so long. Eventually, there has to be a pay-off. [source]




Ahh, the time -honored debate. What is style? In part it is the many ways the author expresses himself and conveys his ideas and central purpose. Style is very personal - no two writing styles are alike. In order to determine a writer's style, we must look at the following areas:

Diction - word choice. Word choice can be formal, informal, colloquial or slang.

  • Formal diction is usually found in academic texts, academic papers and formal discourse.
  • Informal diction is relaxed conversation and is found in writing that has a lighter tone and is sometimes humorous.
  • Colloquial diction is the everyday usage of a particular group. Example: In Cape Breton people say "A bun of bread", "A sup of pop", etc.
  • Slang is defined as a newly coined word not accepted for formal usage yet, and is usually not found in the dictionary.

Sentence structure - Indicated by whether or not the sentences are short, long, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex.

Point Of View

The vantage point from which the author presents the action of the story. It is the person telling the story: the narrator.

  • Omniscient - a story told by the author, using the third person; her/his knowledge, control, and prerogatives are unlimited; authorial subjectivity. The author may describe the thoughts of any or all of the characters. The author does not need to reveal the thoughts or feelings of all characters in order to have Omniscient point of view. If the author reveals the feelings or thoughts of two or more, it is Omniscient.

  • Limited Omniscient - a story in which the author associates with a major or minor character; this character serves as the author's spokesperson or mouthpiece. The author limits her or himself to the expression of this character's thoughts and none of the others. The reader usually has access to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, and sees the story through the eyes of the protagonist.

  • First Person - the author identifies with a major or minor character, or disappears inside a character; the story is told using the first person "I".

  • Objective or Dramatic - the opposite of the omniscient; like a roving camera or a fly on the wall where events are recorded without judgment or comment. Very little of the past or the future is given; the story is set in the present. The author does not show the feelings or thoughts of characters. The reader must judge these things her/himself.