If you’ve got a short story idea but don’t know how to put it together in one literary piece, this article can help you get started.
Below we’ll offer some essential tips on how to write a short story outline.
We’ll also examine why an outline is so helpful for crafting stories that engage and hook readers.
First, let’s develop a better understanding of a good short story outline and later on discuss the outlining process.
What is a story outline?
The best short stories begin with an outline.
An excellent short story outline is a roadmap for the author to track character arcs and critical plot points. It can be a piece of paper, a word document, or an entire PowerPoint presentation. That’s up to you, and where you write the outline depends only on your preferences.
Authors can regularly check in with their story’s development with an outline. Without it, one risks following too many trajectories, ultimately rambling and failing to move the plot along effectively.
The outline is a map or bird’s eye view of the story’s main events, plot points, and structure.
For example, a typical story involves five main elements:
- Beginning (exposition)
- Rising action (introduction of an obstacle to the main character’s goals)
- Climax (character faces that obstacle)
- Falling action (the events of the story that happen post-climax)
- Resolution, or denouement.
You must write a sentence or two from each part of that general structure in a basic outline.
Do I need an outline?
Some people write stories with no plan or outline. Others have all the details planned out.
This technique is known as writing ‘by the seat of one’s pants,’ an approach used by some writers who prefer to create as they go and already have plenty of writing experience.
However, if you’re not yet a master writer and are looking for more support in your writing process, an outline is a wise choice.
The benefits of writing an outline
Outlining a story offers many benefits.
Writing with flow and coherence isn’t always easy. Often writers experience difficulty with the flow, known as writer’s block, and a bad case of writer’s block can set you back.
It may take days or even weeks for it to pass naturally. Outlines are a powerful tool that helps you overcome that dreaded writer’s block.
When you have a structure in place, you can always refer back to that structure when you lose your way.
Some of the main benefits of a story outline include:
- Checkpoints for the story
- Flesh out the characters to make them richer, more three-dimensional
- Track character arcs and character development
- Develop plot points to heighten or enrich the story’s main conflict
- Explore the setting and changes in setting
- Gain an overview of how different elements (plot, characters, setting, theme) interact and move the story
New writers sometimes believe that a story must be written chronologically. They over-focus on the linear progression of the narrative and may feel like their process is unstructured if it doesn’t take place chronologically.
However, more experienced writers understand that the linear progression of the narrative is what one can work on throughout several drafts.
The outline is the prep work for the first draft.
It is important to envision a basic linear progression of events within the outline – the introduction (exposition), rising action, conflict, falling action, and resolution.
Still, feel free to spend one day or one week on the characters, another session on the setting, another on themes and how they play out, and another on plot development.
How to write a short story outline
So, how do we get started with an outline?
There is no universal step; your first step will depend on you as a writer, the parts of your story that excite you the most, and your preferences as to which areas of your story you want to flesh out first.
Instead of offering a step-by-step chronological guide for outlining a short story, let’s explore the different elements of your outline. It’s up to you which you’d like to deal with first.
The four main elements of your outline we’ll explore are:
- Plot points
1. Identify the premise
The premise is the overall idea of your story. It’s the ‘why’ behind your writing.
What story do you want to tell, and how do you want to tell it?
To begin with, write statements about your story. What happens in it? Why is it interesting?
After you’ve got some ideas on paper, try condensing your story’s premise into a single sentence. Can you sum up the entire story in one sentence?
Consider the following one-line premises for well-known stories.
- Wizard of Oz – A young girl enters a magical world through a tornado and must find the wizard to help her get back home.
- To Kill a Mockingbird – A young girl sees her father defend a black man against false accusations, racism, and prejudice in a court of law, with dangerous consequences for the family.
- The Hunger Games – A teenage girl volunteers to enter the Hunger Games – a fight for survival with only one winner – to help her district.
Your premise is something you can return to time and time again when you lose track of your thoughts. Returning to the premise helps you carry the story from beginning to end.
2. Know the setting
The setting is the world in which your story takes place.
Most stories have multiple settings that complement or contrast each other to vivify the reading experience.
Know where your story takes place.
Do your characters live in apartment buildings or houses in the countryside? Does the story take place mainly outdoors or indoors? How and when do the settings change, and why?
Writing the setting of a story is known as ‘worldbuilding.’ As a writer, it’s your job to create the world in which the characters live.
A well-built world makes it easy for the reader to immerse themselves in the story and follow the narrative engagingly and excitedly.
3. Thresh out plot points
As mentioned earlier, the five main elements of short story writing are:
In the exposition, you introduce your main character(s).
You can flesh out the characters in later drafts and throughout the story but to begin with, introduce the characters and their goals.
It would be best if you decided on your protagonist’s main goal for your outline. What do they want? What motivates them to achieve their goals?
The rising action introduces a problem or obstacle that stands in the way of the main character achieving their goal. Again this is to be fleshed out later in your drafts, but in your outline, you only need to identify the problem.
How does your main character deal with the obstacles they face? What is the solution to their problem?
The solution is rarely easy – the challenge is what makes the story intriguing.
Knowing how your character will deal with the problem helps you craft a narrative about how they do so.
What happens after the central conflict? How does the character’s attempt at overcoming their obstacle influence the rest of the story?
The resolution is the ending of the story. You don’t need to tie up all the loose ends, but it should be a somewhat satisfying ending.
Once again, the outline is not the time to flesh out the details. Have a general idea about how your story will end so you can focus the narrative on getting to that point.
Write a few lines or sub-premises for each structural element. These five elements help you frame the story so that you can break up each section.
As you write, you can return to your outline to help you stay focused. Whether you’re writing long or short fiction, involve these five essential elements.
4. Work on character development
Outline some basic details about your main characters. During character development, the finer details are to be explored as you write and details may change slightly or significantly as you get to your second and third drafts and the story starts to come together.
Your protagonist’s persona is often the one that hooks the reader’s attention.
Who is your main character, and what kind of life do they live? What are their beliefs and background? How do they see the world?
Some short stories follow one character, while others feature an entire cast of characters.
In your outline, map out those characters’ arcs.
How do they develop throughout the story? How do the events and changes within the story affect those characters? Take one character – do they begin as a hero or villain? Does their role change throughout the story? What causes that change?
A general idea of a character and character arc helps you stay focused.
As a writer, it’s crucial to demonstrate consistency within the world of your story. A reader immersing themselves in your story may feel considered or disappointed if your character is inconsistent.
Understandably, events and plot points in the story may change the character’s feelings and worldview, but those changes should be relevant to the story.
Protagonist vs. Antagonist
If there is both a protagonist and an antagonist in your story, use your outline to identify the premise of their relationship.
Why are they enemies? How do one’s goals interfere with those of the other?
Understanding and outlining the relationship dynamic between your pro- and antagonist helps you follow that relationship arc throughout the writing process.
A ready-made outline helps you stay on track and keeps the protagonist/antagonist relationship fresh and exciting.
How long is a short story?
Short stories vary in length but generally fall somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 words.
A story with fewer than 1,000 words is flash fiction, while stories over 10,000 are typically known as novellas or novelettes.
10,000 words can seem like a lot, but when you’ve got a good short story, 10,000 words can feel like not enough.
Short story writers face challenges in keeping the entire story short while offering the reader an immersive experience.
Seasoned short story writers understand that condensing a story into fewer than 10,000 words means leaving out some of the finer details of a character or the setting.
Your job as a writer is to identify the most important details and plot points and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.
Tips for writing a great short story
Writing an outline is just one tip for writing a great short story. There are many other tips to consider.
For example, before you even begin your outline, how do you know what to write about in the first place?
All great stories, from short stories to novels, begin with an inspiring idea. So, how do we get inspired?
Read as much as possible
William Faulkner suggests that we:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
Reading classic short stories, novels, newspaper articles, magazines, or blogs is a great way to find inspiration for your next short story.
Perhaps you imagine a scenario in which the characters of an existing story behave differently or live under different circumstances.
Maybe you like an author’s tone of voice or use of humor and feel inspired to write in a similar style.
Be inspired by what you’ve read to stir your passion for writing a good story and come with fresh short story ideas.
If you’ve got an outline, a first draft, or even just an idea in your head, share it with others and get some constructive feedback.
Speak to writers and non-writers alike and ask them how they feel about your story? Do they find it exciting?
Does it make sense to them? Do they find it relevant? Do they have any helpful ideas?
Constructive feedback is vital to any creative person. It helps us see our work from different perspectives and lets us know if we’re on the right track.
Every writer faces a creative block at some point.
Experiencing this block does not mean you’re a terrible writer; it just means you need more creative inspiration.
One of the most effective ways to overcome writer’s block is simply writing from your consciousness stream.
If you’re writing an outline and stuck somewhere, such as how your main character changes from an emotional state to another, start writing whatever comes to mind.
Ninety percent of what comes out may be irrelevant, but that relevant ten percent can get you over the line.
Your outline is far from your final draft.
Throughout the writing process, you’re entirely free to chop and change bits of the story as you see fit.
Perhaps a character’s arc takes a different turn, or a feature of the setting is changed. Change is something you should embrace as a creative.
Alice Munro, the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, explains that ‘any story that’s going to be any good is usually going to change.’
As a writer, you may have several short story ideas floating around your mind at once. That’s great – it’s a sign that your creative juices are flowing.
Still, it’s essential to cultivate a focus on a single story.
Outlining your story is important because it helps you stay focused on that short story idea, rather than allowing thoughts, plot points, and character ideas from other potential stories to get in the way.
Without an outline, you may call on whatever inspiration you find at the moment to help you overcome writer’s block and get your story finished.
It’s essential to seek inspiration, but you don’t want to dilute your story with content and ideas from another.
Use the outline to help you stay on track and give the one story idea the focus and attention it deserves.