My eyes glaze over when asked to think about structure in short fiction. For me, it isn’t as easy to discuss structure as other components of craft, or to separate it from other elements within a story, although at first glance it might seem to be the most basic—it’s the bones of a piece; the shape; the framework.
I think that’s because I rarely begin writing with a story’s structure in mind. I’m not a planner; I let the characters, point of view and eventually the plot dictate what shape it will take, and then in the revision stage, I turn my attention to the overall architecture to make the whole thing work. Other writers may know exactly what’s going to happen before they even pick up a pen / laptop, but that’s not me. I’m a discovery kind of writer, at least in short fiction. (I’ve tried writing a novel with and without an outline, and wow, it really helped to use one!)
Traditional story structure haunts us all from high school—the volcanic shape of its rising action, climax, and denouement. A writer doesn’t have to stick to this formula, although I think it’s in our blood, and will come out anyway. Rather than always beginning at the start of things, stories can begin in medias res, and in fact, that’s often a strong place to enter the world of a story—when things have already gone wrong. Often you’ll still end up with a sense of rising action, leading to a climax, and then a descent toward some conclusion; you’ll just have a stronger hook. Many of my stories begin with a scene, immersing the reader in action right away, which also quickly establishes the tone of the story and voices of its characters.
In my newest story collection, Meteorites, I’ve structured some stories in the more classic way, with a chronological beginning, middle and end. But I’ve got one that moves from past, to present, to future tense, all within a few pages. And there’s an epistolary story, too, which can be a fun structure to work with, although the one I’m talking about is just one letter, so it’s more like a monologue. The title story is the longest in the book, at over 12 000 words, and that length gave me the space to dip into the past a few times while the main narrative moves forward in a more linear fashion. The word on the street is to keep flashbacks to a minimum in a short story, and generally that’s good advice; you have limited time and space in which to tell your tale. But sometimes they’re necessary, and can be woven into a narrative to great effect. I’ve made the mistake of loading some of the strongest material into flashbacks, until I realized that they were the real story, and had to rewrite accordingly.
Another structural technique we writers are cautioned against is using multiple points of view, but I’ve broken this rule, too; I have one story in the book that skips between three people, and another that has two people carrying the story forward. As long as you know who’s talking, I don’t believe there’s an issue. Formatting is key—check and double-check before a story goes to print! Asterisks and white space can be used to great effect in stories, as long as they’re in the right places.
Point of view goes hand in hand with structure. For example, in writing my second collection, The Pull of the Moon, the story “Her Full Name was Beatrice” provided unique challenges, with its dark subject matter of infanticide. Restructuring the story into episodic chunks and using the second person point of view was ultimately what helped change it from being a heavy-handed diatribe into what I hope is a more nuanced story.
Related to structure is the window / house analogy, which has often helped me decide what to include in a story, and how to shape it: if a novel is more like a house or apartment building, then a story is a window into one room. Sometimes asking “What window? Into what room?” will keep the focus stronger. Longer stories can allow for more time to look, but ultimately, in my experience, the attention should still mostly remain on what’s happening in that one window.
There are so many decisions to be made when writing short fiction, and many of them revolve around what to include and what to leave out. Much of the power in a short story is in its concision, and choosing a structure that maintains focus on what really matters is, in my experience, one of the keys to successful story writing.
A few thoughts on structuring a whole collection: for each of my three collections, I haven’t known I was writing to a specific theme. Only once I have many stories written do I examine them for similarities and common ground, and choose the ones that seem to fit together best within one book. (I tried to write a couple more stories once I identified the theme of jealousy for my first collection, The Jealousy Bone, and they were a dismal failure. I guess my subconscious prefers to work in the dark.) Once I compile the stories, I try to structure the whole book with variety in mind, alternating points of view, gender of main characters, tense, voice, and length. Much like an individual story, I want to begin with a punch and end on a strong note; even though all stories should be strong within a collection, there are some that usually stand out as being more attention-grabbing. For Meteorites, I chose to begin with a shorter story about a man taking his ghost father on a trip to Hawaii, because I like the sardonic voice of the character and its edgier tone. I ended the collection with the title story; as mentioned before, it’s a long one, and I thought it would be a good thing for readers to have that more immersive, grounded experience at the end of the book.
Julie Paul is the author of three short story collections, The Jealousy Bone (Emdash, 2008), The Pull of the Moon (Touchwood/B&G, 2014), and Meteorites (Touchwood/B&G, 2019), as well as the poetry collection, The Rules of the Kingdom (MQUP, 2017).
The Pull of the Moon won the 2015 Victoria Book Prize and was a Globe and Mail Top 100 book, and The Rules of the Kingdom was shortlisted for both the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. She lives in Victoria, BC.