Getting to Grips with Short Stories Part 2

With your opening and your hook in place, your characters introduced, and the tone and crux of the story set, it’s time to look at the middle section of the short story structure.  This section is where the bulk of the story takes place, where conflict arises and pacing plays a vital role, and where key scenes happen.

Structure – The Middle

On the whole, the main portion of action happens in this section.  And just as you would construct narrative, description and dialogue in a novel, the same is true for short stories, where a balance of these three elements is crucial to the short story composition.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because it’s a short story that you have to scrimp on description and replace it with lots of dialogue, or replace any dialogue with constant action.  You don’t.  You need both in a balanced, equal measure.

Set out the Character’s Motivation

This section is where you show the reader the motivation for the main character’s actions in the story.  In other words, show the problem you character faces, and how the character will overcome that problem, despite the many barriers in his or her way.

The motivation is what drives the story – the very reason for your character’s actions, reactions and subsequent actions.  This is the section where the writers poses the ‘what if?’ and ‘what next?’ kind of questions for the reader.

Without motivation, the character has nowhere to go and nothing to do, and therefore there’s no story.


It’s part of every story.  You must have some sort of conflict happening between your characters, or the characters and their environs or with themselves, because conflict is the catalyst to providing the reader with tension and atmosphere.  Without it, there is no story.   

Think of your favourite TV dramas – there is always conflict of some description to maintain the viewer’s interest and that sense of ‘what will happen next?’ 

Conflict promotes tension in many ways, while added description within the narrative bolsters the atmosphere.

The Three Unities

I’ve touched on these in previous articles, but these are specifically important to short stories because you are working with a limited amount of words, so these unities provide the reader with what they need to know in terms of time, place and action.

Unity of Time – Short stories tend to take place over a short period of time, as opposed to novels that can cover days, months or even decades.  The time frame tells reader when the story is happening.

Unity of Place – This tells the reader where the story is taking place.  Unlike novels, where there may be a multitude of place settings, a short story usually has just one place where all the action takes place.

Unity of Action – This tells the reader whose story it is – so the story is told from one viewpoint throughout.  (It is of course quite acceptable to have several viewpoints in a short story, however they should be carefully considered before starting the story).

There’s no golden rule that says you have to have all three unities, however having more than one helps make the story stronger, so aim to have at least two.

Vary the pace

Peaks and troughs – that’s the best way to describe what you should be aiming for in the narrative.  Small bouts of action/tension balanced with gentler/softer moments so that the pace is balanced.

If nothing happens in the story, the pace will be static, and it’s likely you will bore your reader.  If the narrative races along at breakneck speed without a pause, this too will put the reader off.  There will be moments when you want the reader to slow down and reflect – even in short stories – so always look for balance when pacing the story.

 Aiming for the Crescendo

The middle is also the section where you build the momentum of the story as it heads towards its conclusion.  The character overcomes the barriers you place in the way, and the climax approaches.
It doesn’t have to be action all the way – which some writers wrongly assume they have to provide – but instead it can be a gradual build-up of tension or atmosphere that leads towards a crescendo.

Next week: Getting to grips with short stories Part 3 - Endings


  1. good tips thanks, and thank you for linking on linkedin as well.

  2. You have helped me with the short story I am writing at the moment. It was going to be severely lacking in conflict, but now I will give it more thought in that respect.

  3. I've mentioned your article in a blog post,
    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks Philip - glad it helped. And thanks for the mention, too!


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