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Steps to Success » Story Writing

Effective Short Story Plotting for Students

Many students come to me with excellent vocabulary, an imagination packed with fantastic ideas, and an ability to organise their writing into paragraphs. However, they still score poorly on creative writing assignments. The problem isn’t that they’re weak writers; it’s often the exact opposite.

These students can develop whole worlds in their minds and give characters a fascinating flaw to overcome in a way that solves the story crisis. But they can’t make these fit well into a school writing assignment. It’s as if Tolkien had tried to keep every idea from The Lord of the Rings while only writing two pages. After one and a half sides of detailed back story on magic rings, conflicts in Middle Earth, and Frodo’s decision to set off on an adventure, Tolkien would have had to squeeze in attacks by the Nazgûl, help from elves, numerous battles, a surprise reappearance of Golum, and the destruction of the ring in the fires of Mordor in a handful of sentences. The story would have felt rushed, disorganised and incomplete.

In order to avoid this problem, it’s important to fit the plot to the project. This doesn’t mean that short stories can only be about small, everyday problems, but that the plotting needs to work around the length of the assignment. I learned a lot about this when adapting books for our Key to Classics series, which bring stories to life in short, manageable texts. I’ve also had plenty of practice in my own writing. When I’m not teaching, I write novels, novellas and short stories, and I’ve found a few ways to fit big ideas into small spaces. Try some of these to bring your amazing stories to life in a matter of pages:

Embed the back story

Instead of giving lots of backstory all at once (we sometimes call this an ‘info dump’), weave details in subtly – this is quicker and much more interesting. For example, if you are writing a dystopian story, you don’t need to fully describe what has happened to the world in the past. The reader will understand enough when you show a character pushing a shopping trolley of tinned food across smooth tarmac where planes once landed and home to her tent in the former first-class lounge.

Reduce the number of characters

This sounds insignificant, but it’s a huge help. In a short story, you have very limited characterisation space. You can either have several characters that are confusing and don’t feel real, or you can have a small number that you bring to life well.

Summarise similar actions

If you want to include lots of action or cover a long time span, select one or two key scenes, and add a sentence to suggest that many more things happened. When I adapted Five Children and It, I couldn’t include all of the adventures the children went on. Instead, I chose two of the children’s wishes to describe in detail, then I wrote:

‘They wished for fun things and important things. They wished for big things and small things. But every wish brought more trouble.’

Embed your ending in the beginning (this is the most important tip)

Following the climax at the midpoint of the story, students want to keep their writing exciting, so they often add even more dramatic action, taking the story in a whole new direction. Unfortunately, this makes the second half of the story feel chaotic and unfocused, and it’s very hard to bring it to a satisfying ending. Instead, you can make the second half feel engaging and also clear by bringing back ideas you seeded at the beginning. For example, in a story in which a girl wants to reawaken banned magic to bring back her parents who died in the magic wars, we don’t need to add new, bigger monsters after she resurrects her parents at the midpoint. What we need to do is bring back something from the start which shows why the initial goal of bringing back her parents was in fact wrong. At the start of the story, we need to seed some sort of conflict in the initial goal, such as showing that magic actually drains power from others nearby and hurts them when it’s used. Then the main character achieves her initial goal (of bringing back her parents) only at the cost of others, which will give her a new goal of fixing the pain she’s caused, perhaps even sacrificing her own initial desires in the process.

Using these tools, you can tell a complex story in a small amount of space. Before you start writing, make sure to divide your word count / page allowance into 5 even sections. Fill each of these with a part of the story mountain (introduction of setting and characters; build up of small problems; big problem / climax; resolution; ending). The hardest part of following the story mountain is making the first two sections short enough. Practise getting to the climax in the middle of your word count, and you’ll create a highly satisfying, well-organised and engaging story.


Join fellow writers practising their plotting skills in our Love to Write classes.