A Few Notes on the Structure of a Short Story

short story
Photo by Adobe Stock
1. Introduction

This essay is not meant to be a work of literary criticism, but as a guide to beginning writers about structure in a short story and how they can approach it when they write. Of course, the structures of short stories are variegated and endless, and so this essay is perforce limited. For every so-called “rule” on structure, there is a writer who has breached it to great effect. Still, it is useful to discuss the various elements in a short story in order to realize the possibilities offered by the genre. So, we shall be studying three elements of structure: chronology, point of view, and pacing. I apologize for writing exclusively about my own work, but given the rules of copyright law I cannot quote from the masters at any length.

2. Chronology

Short stories can be written using a wide variety of different chronologies. Some stories are clearly linear, beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. Others begin in media res and then go backward and forward in time. Still others begin at the end and then flashback to the beginning. In other stories, there is a constant alternation between scenes from the past and scenes from the present. So, the beginning writer has a question at the outset of the writing process: what sort of chronology will I use in my story? The answer to this question is important, as finding the “right” chronology for a short story often determines whether a story succeeds or fails.

Some stories may best be told in a linear fashion, beginning with the first event in time and then depicting what happens next in a strictly chronological order. The conclusion is the last temporal event in the narrative, the place where everything is wrapped up and any lingering questions are answered. This makes the job easier for the reader, as compared, say, to a story with multiple flashbacks, but that does not necessarily mean it is the best way for you to structure your story. When should you write your story as a strictly linear narrative, and when should you use a different chronology? The answer is not that simple.

One reason you might want to start at the chronological beginning of a story is when the first scene in time happens to be riveting. Especially in today’s world of online publishing, you may need to have a “hook” on your first page, although I don’t see that as a hard and fast rule. Some marvelous stories simply take their time. Still, if you can capture a reader’s attention from the get-go, it is more likely that she will continue reading. In my own writing, I seldom tell my stories starting at the chronological beginning unless the first scene in time immediately piques my reader’s interest. On the other hand, I rarely start my tales in the middle of the plot where the initial temporal scene in the story already packs a punch. There is no reason to confuse the reader by starting in the middle of things when you know the first scene in time will have a very powerful effect. As explained in greater detail below, however, there are stories which demand to be begun in media res.

I begin my story “Comrade Juana” at the chronological beginning of the tale when the American protagonist engages in her first act of “direct action” – the bombing of an electric transmission tower on the outskirts of Lima. It is by no means the climax of the piece. The plot is about how she becomes more and more involved in acts of terrorism, to such an extent that by the end of the story she decides to stay and collaborate with her Shining Path guerrilla lover even after he confesses to having ordered the massacre of a hundred quechua peasants. It makes sense to start the story at its chronological beginning, since it immediately leads the reader to ask what will happen next. The story begins with a “hook,” as mentioned above, and so there is no reason to begin in media res. The story could have been told with a different initial scene – the massacre of the peasants for example – but there would really be no reason to change the structure of the story. By holding back on the description of the final scenes in the story in a chronological sense, the reader is forced to keep reading until the main character is led to her final act of self-destruction.

In my story, “That Person Whom You Know,” the story begins when the protagonist, Giovanni Avitabile, a professor of Italian literature, is given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease soon after he learns that his niece Nenollina is suffering from bone cancer and must have her leg amputated. Again, starting at the chronological beginning of the story makes sense as it immediately hooks the reader. The story is ultimately about how the atheistic professor converts to Catholicism and learns to accept his disease as well as the death of his niece. The story would not have been better told by starting in the chronological middle of things or at the chronological end. Instead, beginning with the dual diagnoses leads the reader to be immediately emotionally invested in the fate of both main characters, which is not disclosed until the final page of the narrative. The story is a good example of how this particular structure of a story – beginning at the chronological outset – may be the best structure of all.

In other stories, it makes more sense to begin in media res. Simply stated, the chronological beginning of a story might consist mostly of boring backstory which will not incite the reader to keep on reading. In such cases, it is better to begin the piece with a climactic scene which excites the reader’s curiosity and then fill in any necessary backstory later on in the tale. In my story, “Crooked Lines,” I tell the tale of a nun who becomes a Shining Path guerrilla. The chronological beginning of the story is when the protagonist – Sister Dolores, later Comrade Dolores – attends a Carmelite school as an adolescent. In my first draft of the story, I wrote it in linear fashion, first describing her years with the nuns. But upon rereading it, I found little in the introduction to pique the reader’s interest. So, I rewrote it, beginning with a scene of Comrade Dolores sitting in a restaurant as she waits for the Shining Path guerrilla leader to bring her the gun for Comrade Dolores to perform her first targeted assassination. By beginning with that scene, I immediately incite the reader’s interest. How did the former nun become a Shining Path revolutionary? What was the fork in the road that took her from helping the poor as a nun to killing a politician as a guerrilla? Knowing that the protagonist eventually became a terrorist makes the reader want to know how it happened. What could have been boring backstory instead is information coveted by the reader. The story required such a structure in order to be a compelling narrative. The chronology of a short story must always be at the service of the telling.

With other stories, another approach is advisable. Simply put, a story might begin at its chronological end. Indeed, some stories have to begin with the last event in time because they revolve around an enigma. In such pieces, the reader is intrigued not merely by what happened but mostly by why it happened. In my story, “Inkarri,” I begin the story with its chronological end – the beheading of the eighteenth century revolutionary, Tupac Amaru II of Peru. However, the reader is led not to wonder whether or not the protagonist will be killed but to wonder whether Tupac Amaru II was the Inkarri – a mythological figure from the quechua pantheon who promised to become resurrected and oust the Spaniards from Peru. As the story unfolds, a mestizo priest decides to begin an investigation to determine once and for all whether the dead Tupac Amaru II was the resurrected Inkarri and begins to interview multiple witnesses to answer that question. What might have seemed boring backstory in another piece is information desperately needed by the reader in order to know whether or not Tupac Amaru II was the Inkarri. As stated before, short stories revolving around an enigma are often best told by commencing at the chronological end and then giving the reader tidbits of information which the reader avidly desires. Although the end of Tupac Amaru II is a foregone conclusion, not so the question of whether or not he was the Inkarri. The reader can only answer that question by the literal ending of the tale. Any other structure would have diminished the intrigue. Beginning the story with its chronological end enhances rather than detracts from the reader’s interest in the telling.

In “A Thorn in Guitemie’s Flesh,” I also structure the story with it chronological ending at the beginning of the story, when Father Camilo Torres Restrepo is ambushed and killed while fighting as a guerrilla in the mountains of Colombia. Starting the piece with its chronological end makes sense here. It doesn’t matter if the story is told with its chronological ending in the first scene because the nub of the story is not the fact that he became a revolutionary as much as the priest’s relationship with a Frenchwoman named Guitemie. We want to know why Father Camilo and Guitemie never became lovers although they live together for years – there’s your enigma! – and don’t learn the answer to that question until the end. Also, beginning the story with Guitemie’s learning her beloved priest was killed allowed me to start the story with a riveting scene, much more interesting than beginning with Father Camilo’ disquisitions about the merits and demerits of guerrilla violence, which happens first chronologically but isn’t as engrossing as Guitemie’s reaction to the death of the man she had always dreamed of as a lover.

Before moving on from the subject of chronology, I should point out that there’s another way to approach it in a short story. One can alternate scenes taking place in the present with scenes taking place in the past. By alternating this way, the writer keeps the immediacy of writing in scene – as opposed to summary – while at the same time narrating events taking place at various moments in the character’s life. Alternating to past events is not the equivalent of writing backstory because each scene is written as if it were happening in the present moment, although past tense may be used to convey to the reader that certain scenes happened before others. There is also something to be said about the juxtaposition of present and past events in a short story. The past events illuminate those which occur in the present moment, and vice versa. In my story, “Crooked Lines,” described above, the scenes with Comrade Dolores preparing to assassinate the mayor and committing various crimes as a guerrilla are juxtaposed with those describing how she arrived at that point in her life after having worked as a nun for years, helping the impoverished residents of the shantytowns of Lima. As such, everything is written in scene rather than backstory, while at the same time, the scenes from the past help to understand the character’s present moment. For some stories, alternating scenes from the past and the present are the best way to tell the story.

In my story, “A Jew on the Cross,” I tell the story of Saint Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a Carmelite nun who was nonetheless gassed at Auschwitz. I alternate scenes when she is on the train to the death camp with scenes from her past, thus developing the character and adding poignancy to the horrific events which happen on the train. We understand the character better because after each scene on the train there is a scene about her prior life – growing up as a devout Jew, embracing the Catholic faith after being trained as a philosopher, being terrified on Kristallnacht when the Nazis destroyed all Jewish businesses, deciding to escape to Holland to save her life. This is not the same as backstory, as everything is written in scene as opposed to summary, and the events from Edith Stein’s past, rather than being surplus fluff, are an integral part of the telling. By the use of juxtaposition, what could seem to be disjointed events become a seamless web of horror and resilience. The alternating chronology helps propel the story forward in a way which would not be possible with a linear narrative.

At all events, the various uses of chronology described above are not meant to be exhaustive, as accomplished writers have juggled time in their stories in myriad ways. I can provide one example of an experimental chronology in one of my own works, “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter.” In that piece, the tale begins and ends with the artist Michelangelo Caravaggio’s comments about a painting with the same name as the story, but the bulk of the piece is about a series of flashbacks experienced by Saint Peter while he is crucified upside down in the Roman Coliseum. A linear narrative would have been impossible with this story, as Caravaggio lived in the seventeenth century and Peter lived in the first. And given the title, I think it makes sense for the meat of the story to begin when Saint Peter is being crucified. A strange way of telling the story – I realize – and yet I think the story works.

3. Point of View

Another decision that has to be made by the writer before beginning her short story is the point of view in which the story will be told. Again, there are no easy answers as to this choice. Each different point of view has its own challenges, advantages and disadvantages. Broadly speaking, there are four possible points of view: omniscient narrator, first-person narrator, second-person narrator and third-person narrator. It is also possible to tell a story using multiple points of view, although this is discouraged by many writing instructors. I don’t tend to agree on this point. I think that if shifting the point of view doesn’t confuse the reader, there is no reason to avoid it.

The first possibility is to write your story with an omniscient narrator. I think this was the prevalent point of view used by writers in the nineteenth century, like Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, but it is far less popular today. The advantage to using an omniscient point of view is that it gives you broad latitude to get into the minds of all the characters. As a practical matter, this means that you can describe scenes from multiple perspectives. If you’re writing with a first-person point of view, you’re limited to scenes witnessed by a single character – the first-person narrator. With an omniscient point of view, on the other hand, you’re free to write scenes from the point of view of any of the characters in your story. This can be a great advantage when you have a polyphonic work, that is, where your story includes a diversity of simultaneous points of view and voices. So, then the question is: why would you want to use any other point of view? The answer, as with all issues related to the structure of a short story, is not that simple.

In certain cases, it is preferable to write your story with a first-person point of view, a close third-person point of view, or even a second-person point of view. One of the disadvantages of using an omniscient narrator is that it is sometimes confusing to the reader as it is not always easy to know from whose perspective a scene is being told. Also, with an omniscient narrator, there is no ambiguity in the telling. We know that the narrator is always right. With a first-person narrator, on the other hand, you have a lot more room to provide scenes from an unreliable perspective which – counterintuitively – may let you know the character in a deeper way. If what a first-person narrator says sounds delusional or false, the narrative might be richer for it, as the narration itself manifests the complexities of human perception while at the same time giving you greater insight into the character. A story told from a first-person point of view may be more aligned with the idea that in life certain things are inherently unknowable such as a character’s ultimate motivations for engaging in certain acts – a suicide, a conversion, a radical act of love. As such, it may be duplicitous to pretend otherwise in a piece of fiction. A first-person narrator doesn’t allow you to fall into that trap. With a first-person narrator, we never forget that there may be misperceptions in the telling, whether they are intentional or not.

A related question is from whose point of view a first-person narrative should be told. The first-person narrator may be the protagonist, but not necessarily so. The Great Gatsby is famously told from the point of view of Nick Carraway rather than Gatsby, Moby Dick from the perspective of Ishmael rather than Captain Ahab. There are certain benefits to narrating a story from the point of view of a witness rather than that of the protagonist. It may seem paradoxical, but sometimes other persons know us better than we know ourselves. In my story, “A Thorn in Guitemie’s Flesh,” the ostensible protagonist is a Colombian priest, Father Camilo Torres Restrepo, who decides to give up his cassock to become a revolutionary. The story is not told from his point of view, however, but from the point of view of Guitemie, a woman who loved him with an unrequited love. Writing from her point of view allows us to gain a greater insight into the motivations of the priest and lets us see contradictions he does not see himself. Of course, by the time the story ends, the reader knows as much about Guitemie as about Father Torres Restrepo himself.

I may point out in passing that as a practical matter many times I begin to write a story with a witness narrator, and as I write the story, he becomes the protagonist. In “Canticle of the Sun,” for example, I set out to write the story of Saint Francis of Assisi from the point of view of a leper whom he healed. As the story developed through the writing process, I realized that it was the leper who was the ultimate protagonist of the piece. Saint Francis of Assisi is still a major character, but less so than the leper Riccardo. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who has had this experience. When a character is intended merely to be a witness but is the narrator of the piece, sometimes she ends up having an outsized role in the story and becomes the protagonist herself.

I should also point out another possibility, though I have seldom seen it in fiction. A short story might have multiple first-person narrators. This is particularly useful when two or more characters have different perceptions of what has happened. In my story, “The Ecstasies of Adalenie Santaliz,” the bulk of the story is told from the point of view of Javier Pardo, a friend of the protagonist Adalenie Santaliz, a Yale College undergraduate. When Adalenie begins to engage in mystic trances and claims she has levitated and her heart has been pierced with a seraph’s lance, Javier believes she is suffering from a mental illness, but the reader isn’t so sure. Maybe she’s a mystic rather than a madwoman. To make the story more interesting and to get more deeply into the character, I juxtapose the scenes narrated from Javier’s point of view – when he finds her in her dorm room catatonic, for example – with stream-of-consciousness narrations from Adalenie’s point of view describing her mystic trances. By the end of the story, after Adalenie is dead, Javier is no longer convinced his friend was schizophrenic and neither is the reader. We are led to contemplate the idea that maybe she was a saint. At all events, by having two first person narrators, we get closer to the “truth” than if everything were narrated by a single narrator.

I also wrote a piece with multiple first-person narrators in “The Artists’ Exchange.” It is a story told in epistolary form as a series of letters between Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist. I consider narrations in epistolary form as first-person narratives. After all, letters are written in the first person and express the writer’s experiences and thoughts. By having the same events – mostly concerning the assassination of the Russian Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940 – narrated from two different points of view, we get greater insight into the motivation of all the major players. At the risk of repetition, we get closer to the truth than in a story with a single narrator by having two separate first-person narrators.

A writer might also want to write a short story with a close third-person narrator. Why would you want to have a third-person narrator as opposed to a first-person narrator? Perhaps it is because you don’t want the unreliability or ambiguity of first-person narration. With a close third-person point of view, you get the same thing as with first person – the reader sees everything through the protagonist’s eyes – while at the same time the story told is represented as the unvarnished truth. There is usually no unreliability in third-person narration, although everything is possible in experimental fiction.

In addition, comparing first- with third-person narration leads us to a concept from Latin American literary criticism – the point of enunciation. According to certain literary critics, the point of enunciation describes the time and place from which a story is told. With a first-person narration, the narrator is telling the story from a specific time and place. He may be telling the story as an old man who has moved far from the places where the events took place. Or he may be telling the events immediately after they happen while he watches the place where they happen. Moreover, in certain first-person narratives, there are multiple points of enunciation. Each scene in the story is told from a different time and place such that you have shifting points of enunciation. This creates complexities for the writer which can be avoided by writing a close third-person narrative. When you have a first-person narrator, you always have to figure out the point from which the story is being told and convey it to the reader. Not so with third-person narration, where the third-person narrator can seamlessly write from a multiplicity of places and times.

Finally, we get to stories told with a second-person point of view, where a particular “you” is addressed by the narrator. This is the most unusual form of narrative structure and is often used to place emphasis on the relationship between the person telling the story and the person to whom the story is being told. I have also seen examples of second-person narration in experimental narratives where the “you” addressed is the reader herself, forcing the reader to be immersed and invested in the story in a far more immediate way than with either a first-person or third-person point of view. Such stories have sentences such as “you are walking through a minefield,” which force the reader to put himself in the shoes of the protagonist and thus increase the reader’s interest.

In my story, “Trotsky in Mexico,” I make use of a second-person point of view. The narrator, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, addresses her husband Diego Rivera and her sister Cristina Kahlo as Frida is languishing in a hospital bed after her leg has just been amputated. The narrative perspective is very similar to a first-person point of view – everything is told through the eyes of Frida Kahlo – except that the narrative is addressed at two particular destinataires, the husband and the sister who have been involved in an ongoing sexual affair. The second-person point of view allows the writer to more easily convey Frida’s feelings that she has been betrayed by those she loved the most. The narration thus becomes an ongoing complaint, an iteration of Frida’s grievances against her husband and her sister. The story ends with Frida’s demand that her husband Diego assist her in committing suicide. The piece could have been written from a first-person point of view just as easily, but I think a second-person point of view is ideally suited for this story. It is first and foremost a cry of pain from Frida Kahlo directed at the two persons who were the culprits behind Frida’s existential anguish. That may not have been as easily conveyed in a first-person narration.

4. Pacing

The question of pacing always involves a trade-off. You can write at a leisurely pace, bedazzling the reader with your quasi-poetic use of language, or you can write at a quicker pace, using multiple scenes and plot points. Thus, the writer is faced with a dilemma and a challenge. The more ornate and complex the language, the less space there is in the piece to develop the plot. Conversely, the more complicated the plot, the less space there is for marvelous language and concrete detail. In a word, the more poetic language, the less plot. The more plot, the less poetic language. Writing instructors often tell you to focus on the use of beautiful language and the use of specific, concrete details. What they don’t tell you is that if you slow-pace your story to focus on the language, you’ll have less space to develop the story itself unless you’re willing to blow up your word count. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a story with twelve thousand words, for example, but that means you can send your stories to fewer literary journals, as the vast majority insist on a word count of five thousand words or less. So, the question arises for every short story writer: what should be the pacing of my short story? As with all issues regarding the structure of a short story, there are no simple answers.

I think the way authors decide on the trade-off between ornate language and multiple plot points depends on each writer’s predilections. I’ve read some very short stories with a single scene told with such detail, such masterful use of poetry and metaphor, that I am deeply satisfied. On the other hand, I’ve also read longer stories with multiple scenes and a more efficient use of language that are just as satisfying. The key is to be conscious of the choice you’re making and realize that you’re making it through the pacing of your story. In my own writing, I’m often drawn to telling stories with a lot of plot so that my word count is often over ten thousand words. If I wanted to tell a much shorter story with the same number of plot points, I’m sure I would end up writing much of the story in summary, which is the worst choice of all. And so my writing becomes a two-step process. In the first draft, I focus on developing the plot and the characters of the story. Having done that, I return to the story to add in more concrete descriptions and poetic language. If I end up with a story of twelve thousand words, so be it.

Another thing to point out about pacing is that it is not the same throughout the piece. Think of your writing as a motor vehicle or a rollercoaster. At some points the pacing will be slow as your story lingers over a sunset. At other points the pacing will be so fast that you wrap up ten years of plot in a single paragraph. There are no hard and fast rules about pacing and ultimately you just have to follow your gut. I don’t think you can plan the pacing of a short story before you begin to put it down on paper (or on the screen of your computer). It arises organically as you are in the midst of the writing process. In my own writing, I often find that the pacing gets quicker the closer I am to the conclusion of a story when everything is wrapped up. When I am writing with a first-person narrator, in particular, the penultimate scene of my story is invariably the one with the climactic moment and the last scene contains the narrator’s gloss over what has happened, often at a distance of several years from the climactic incident.

In my story, “Comrade Juana,” for example, the penultimate scene is the one where the American protagonist (Karen Jones, aka Comrade Juana) decides to join the Shining Path guerrilla movement despite knowing that her lover, Comrade Carlos, has engaged in the wholesale massacre of a hundred Amerindian peasants suspected of being allied with the Peruvian military. After that scene, I fast forward quickly, with the last scene of the story taking place twenty years later, when Comrade Juana is tried and convicted of terrorism by a Lima tribunal. I don’t think I needed to go over everything that happened during those twenty years of “armed action,” since the piece is ultimately about her decision to become a guerrilla despite her pangs of conscience. Once that decision is explored – the core of the story – the pacing can quicken to briefly describe the end result of her conduct.

In a related piece, “A World for Abimael Jones,” I tell the story from the perspective of Comrade Juana and Comrade Carlos’ son, Abimael Jones. The story mainly revolves around the inner conflict faced by the child as he becomes increasingly aware of his parents’ ruthless revolutionary activities. Once again, the pace quickens at the end. In the penultimate scene of the story, Abimael frees a journalist kept as a captive by his parents when he learns they plan to kill him after a ransom is paid. That is the climactic scene of the narrative as Abimael’s decision ultimately leads to his mother’s arrest and his “liberation” from his parents. The last scene of the story moves forward quickly in time and takes place when Abimael Jones is a priest listening to a penitent’s Confession twenty years later. Why the sudden shift in pacing? Because Abimael’s rejection of his parents’ revolutionary credo is what the story is ultimately about. What happens after he frees the journalist and before he becomes a priest is not essential to the story. All the reader needs to know is that in the end Abimael becomes a priest in a stunning disavowal of everything taught to him by his parents. The pacing follows the needs of the story as it always must.

5. Conclusion

I hope you find the foregoing essay useful as you think of the multiple choices you face as a writer. The purpose of this analysis is not to persuade you to make any particular decisions with respect to chronology, point of view or pacing. I merely want to help you explore all the possibilities with each of these important elements of narrative structure. Feel free to experiment. Every rule on writing fiction has been exploded by the masters.

About the Author

Sandro F. Piedrahita

Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic author of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent, with a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College. Most of his stories revolve around Latin American mythical or historic themes, told with a modern twist. Mr. Piedrahita's short stories have been accepted for publication in The Write Launch, The Acentos Review, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Carmina Magazine, Synchronized Chaos, The Ganga Review, Limit Experience Journal and Foreshadow Magazine.