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Learn the Format of Short Stories: Plus a Writing Activity

written by: Kellie Hayden • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 11/12/2013

What makes a short story different from other forms of literature? Learn more about the short story format and get tips on analyzing and writing one of your own.

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    What Makes It Different?

    The format for a short story is very different than the format of a novel, play or poem. Short stories are -- well, they're shorter.

    A short story is a reading that can be completed in one sitting. The characters will not be as developed as in a novel, and action is not totally dependent on dialogue as it is in a play. Even within the confines of limited pages, an author can develop intriguing themes, tone, and mood.

    The Plot Structure

    Plot out the Plot The plot structure of a short story is very similar to that of a novel. Again, the length will be shorter and the plot elements may not be as detailed. The following plot elements are generally covered in a short story:

    • Exposition -- the setting and characters are introduced
    • Rising action -- the conflicts or complications that lead up to the climax
    • Climax -- a turning point
    • Falling action -- events that lead to closure for the characters
    • Resolution -- the ending

    The basic structure or format of a short story describes a main character or hero who tries to overcome a conflict. In a novel there will be several conflicts or complications that lead up to the climax. Because a short story is shorter, there is usually just one conflict that the main character deals with. The climax may occur as the character overcomes the conflict after many tries.

    Another difference in short stories is that there will usually be fewer complications and conflicts and there will be fewer well-developed characters. In addition, the time that elapses in many short stories is less than that in most novels. Instead of a month or a year, a short story may take place in a day or even an afternoon. The setting is not always as important in a short story as in a novel.

    Short Story Elements

    These are similar to a novel. The story can be told from the following point of view:

    • First person point of view -- The story is told by a character, usually by the hero or protagonist. The character will tell it using the personal pronoun, I, me, my, and mine. You can't be certain the narrator is telling the truth or that he knows the truth.
    • Third person omniscient -- A person or narrator from above watching is telling the story. The narrator knows all that is happening from the characters' inner feelings to the events that happened in the past. The narrator decides what is important to tell in the story and many times knows more than the characters in the story. The pronouns he, she, they, and theirs are used to tell the story.
    • Third person limited -- A narrator in the story is telling the story. We only know the facts from what that one character sees and learns. This narrator does not have the same amount of information or "vision" as the third person omniscient. The pronouns he, she, hey, and theirs are used to tell the story.
    • Third person objective -- The narrator is not one of the story's characters. The story refers to the characters as he, she, they, and theirs. The narrator can only relate to us what the characters say and do without knowing their thoughts.
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    Writing Stories

    The best place to start to learn more about writing is to study the masters of the short story. Many classic short stories are available online or at your local library. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and O. Henry are just a few of the great writers who penned stories that engage readers. For younger writers, great short stories can include the authors Anton Chekov, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shirley Jackson.

    After getting inspiration fromt the masters, complete the following activity:

    Short Story Practice Idea

    One specific practice idea that students of any age can do is to complete the following project that compares two short stories and presents the information in a poster.

    Choose two short stories. Make a poster that compares two of the following items or elements in the three stories:

    • Characters
    • Setting
    • Conflicts
    • Climax
    • Point of View
    • Resolution

    The posters must include the name and author of each story. In addition, make sure to show examples of the two elements. This can be done with a combination of symbols, pictures, short quotes or brief explanations. This will give you a visual when writing your own short story.


    Elements of a Short Story, Ms. Engram's English Class.

    Structure of a Short Story, Philip Brewer's Writer's Page.

    Tips of Writing a Short Story, Abilene Christian University, Jerz's Writing Page.