Short Story Craft

Like Escher's Drawing Hands, I'm reading to understand writing craft for future stories.

Like Escher’s Drawing Hands, reading my story to understand writing craft for future stories.

Reading “Determined Friend” a short story I wrote about 15 years ago, I realized I had learned a few new techniques over the intervening years. Perhaps writing them down will help me incorporate them more easily in future stories.

Dramatic Elements

These few points keep me focused on why I am spending effort writing the short story. They also help winnow out extraneous threads that can slip in.

  • Passion. What propels my desire to write the story?
  • Theme. What I want the reader to take away from the story?
  • Character flaw. Aspect of protagonist that makes the theme occur.
  • Premise. What if a (flawed protagonist) sets out to (perform a task) in order to (achieve his greater goal) and discovers that he has to (surmount his flaw) to achieve success?

These are meant to provoke the story development and not as iron shackles. For instance, the character flaw can be relative to the plot obstacle rather than an absolute flaw.

After a draft, a revisit to the story premise often occurs.

Three Acts. Nine Checkpoints

Act 1

  • Hook. Exciting plot event (inciting incident) in which protagonist’s action hints at his flaw.
  • Backstory. Can be several incidents, to show why protagonist is way that he is, esp. his flaw.
  • Trigger. Scene. Intense event that protagonist must respond to (to achieve his goal and where he fails because of his flaw is an ideal story structure, often not achieved).

Act 2

  • Crisis. Sequel. Emotional, trigger’s effect on flaw.
  • Struggle. Ever increasing obstacles to achieving goal.
  • Epiphany. Character realizes flaw and overcomes. If character accepts his flaw, then story is a tragedy.

Act 3

  • Plan. Using insight from epiphany.
  • Climax. Confronts antagonist, who, ideally, is defeated by own flaw.
  • Ending. Conflicts resolve with release of emotional tension.

Most stories satisfy some pieces of this structure and not others. That’s fine. The goal is to help organize the presentation of information to the reader.

Immediate Scene

In an immediate scene, the flow of time is smooth, unbroken by gaps of minutes of unrevealed actions. It is the proper vehicle to show conflict between characters of opposing desires or goals.

There’s a functional structure that immediate scenes follow.

  • Goal. Simple statement, in speech or thought, of what the protagonist is attempting to achieve.
  • Value. Story value the lead character is entering with (hope, for instance), that at the end of most scenes will be reversed or altered in some fashion.
  • Conflict. Typically 3-4 turns or twists in prospects for reaction the protagonist’s scene goal occur during interactions with others in scene, particularly the antagonist.
  • Reversal climax. The last conflict in the scene thwarts the protagonist in some way, perhaps a definite No, but often Yes, but or in some cases No, and furthermore, where the furthermore leads to other complications.

All action is described in a single flowing experience via MiR units.

  • MiR. Motivating stimulus. internal thought. Response
  • Physical observable (M). The reader must see, or perhaps hear in dialogue, an action or provocation that the protagonist responds to.
  • Internal thought (i). A little ‘i’ because it is only needed when the next physical reaction depends on the perspective of the character, which the reader may not share or already be aware of.
  • Which prompts physical reaction (R). The reaction must visible to the reader, not just an irritation that the protagonist suppresses.

If reaction is not intuitively understandable, then brief internal thought (i) can mediate

Naturally where the scene occurs in the plot will affect the way you shape the action and reversal climax. The final climax will rarely support a Yes, but or No, furthermore resolution. If that ambiguity is desired, usually the ending  will be the better place for that.


Have you ever read a story and you couldn’t understand why this person did this or this event occurred next or the pace of action was too hectic? That can be caused by a lack of sequels.

Sequels reveal the protagonist’s reaction and response to the reversal climax of an immediate scene. The immediate scene, showing smoothly flowing time doesn’t allow for more than surface responses to action.

Let’s take the sequel, the internal response of the protagonist to frustration at end of the prior scene, piece-by-piece.

  • Reversal reaction. The character reacts emotionally with physical sensations (clenching jaw, heat rising up neck, etc).
  • Thoughts. As character gets beyond the frustration, he or she starts reviewing the impact of reversal.
  • Decisions. With reflection, new plans occur, different ways to achieve the goal.
  • Chose Action/goal. Some possibilities might be rejected as too reactive and not likely to lead to success, but whichever new plan is selected, that leads to the goal for the next scene.

Narrative Summary

The reader needs to know certain information about the plot line, characters, and the story world. These facts are not in doubt or contested, so they can’t be the main flow in an immediate scene. They can be conveyed during dialogue in narrative summary, in which the reader is presented not merely with the facts, but the character’s attitude toward the fact. This broadens the reader’s understanding of the story world.


Transitions between immediate scenes, mixed scenes (part immediate, part narrative summary), and sequels allow the writer to present local color to the reader, flavoring the story with specific time, place, and culture as well as giving opportunity for setting perspective distance used in the next scene.


In this essay, I touched on writing craft elements that I learned through practicing these last 10 years. Wanting to arrange in my mind, that means writing them.


“Drawing Hands” by M.C. Escher: Fair use,

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