How to Structure a Short Story (3 Winning Ways)

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Would you like to know how to structure a short story that wins a prize?

Of course you would!

You’ve drafted your story, and it looks good.

But now you want to fine-tune it to win a contest.

How do you improve your chances?

Let me tell you a secret.

I’ve judged more than 5000 entries in short fiction awards over five years.

What do I look for when compiling the shortlist?

Deep Structure.

Why is this a secret?

Most contestants don’t know about Deep Structure. Those who do, win prizes.

To use Deep Structure, you need to go beyond the obvious – especially if you’re writing flash fiction. In a short-short story every word must contribute to the structure.

What’s the obvious?

First, you’ve edited the story, of course.

You’ve checked for misspellings, typos, punctuation and syntax errors. You’ve then used the Find utility in Word (Ctrl + F) to search for terms ending in ‘-y’. They are often adverbs. For example, ‘He smiled happily.’

You’ve also checked for words with an ‘-ing’ suffix. Words with ‘-ing’ at the end are sometimes gerunds. For instance, ‘He was walking.’

What’s wrong with adverbs and gerunds?


But too many send the reader to sleep. Delete them or change them to active verbs.

You’ve also balanced sentence and paragraph lengths. If every sentence or passage is the same length, you’ll have cut a few in half or even into fragments.

Your story gained pace, didn’t it?


This is especially useful at times of drama.

In moments of reflection, it’s safe to lull the reader with long sentences, maybe of equal length.

Now for how to write a short story that will win you a prize.

All great stories have Deep Structure, but it’s usually invisible.

Deep Structure is what the reader detects subconsciously beneath the narrative. A perception of depth.

How do you lay that dimension into your story? Or bring it out?

Here are three ways to do so.

#1. Give Your Story a Sense of Unity

A strong close is one clue to a fine tale.

The end may be ambiguous or pose a further riddle, but the reader knows the story’s done. Nothing useful can be added.

Here are three classic ways to close a story.

1. Repeat a theme.

Take a phrase or theme from the first paragraph and echo it in the last paragraph, where it might acquire a new, and possibly ironic, significance.

For example, a young police cadet is on his first training day. By way of instruction, he gets bruised, insulted, half-drowned and tossed over a wall.

The story opens with a cheerful greeting from his team leader: “Welcome to the company, Jim.” It ends with the same line: “Welcome to the company, Jim.”

But now the term Welcome has acquired an ironic meaning.

You don’t need to repeat a line literally to get the echo or ‘book-end’ effect.

A setting will do it. Maybe the story starts on a wind-tossed beach and also closes on one.

Or you could echo an incident. An old man sniffs a rose in paragraph one. He sniffs it again in the last line. The story has come full circle but, in the interim, a lot has happened…

2. The elegiac fadeout.

Here, the local incidents of the story are given a cosmic dimension at the close.

‘Everything had changed but nothing had. Above them shone the cold remorseless stars. And what passed for life below went on.’

What does that mean? Not a lot. But it has a cryptic note of finality.

Ruth Rendell fades out her award-winning story The Dreadful Day of Judgement with the poetic words: ‘In great shaggy flakes, the snow had begun to fall.’

The line adds nothing to the plot but it signifies closure.

3. Ask a question.

Somebody asks a rhetorical question that summarizes the essence of the story and throws it back at the main character.

For example, the tale of our hapless police cadet might have ended with his team leader asking: “You knew what you were getting into, didn’t you?”

The story continues: ‘Did he? As Jim stumbled away to the ambulance, he no longer knew anything any more.’

#2. Echo an Emblem

Take a strong image or statement from an early part of the story and repeat it later, perhaps at several points, each time with a twist.

1. An example of an image.

In an early episode of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Emma sees a statue in a beautiful garden. Later she revisits the garden, but now the statue is in a state of ruin. It is a mirror of her own moral decay.

Repeat an image or statement several times and it becomes an emblem.

Maybe the reader notices the repetition, maybe not. But the story resonates like a great bell. (In fact, the academic term is ’emblematic resonance.’)

2. An example of a statement.

In a suspense story, the narrator might see a cryptic shadow slip away from a crime scene: ‘A man who had no face.’

Later, she meets him on a happier occasion. Something about him triggers a memory. ‘The man who had no face.

Now the horror returns, and the suspense.

#3. Weave in a Sub-plot

Even a short story can gain dimension when you lay in a trivial plot line – inconsequential to the tale – behind the main plot. It’s also a helpful tactic whenever you need to impart a lot of information without boring the reader.

No, you can’t sit two or more characters around a table and have them talk at each other for three hours!

Get them doing something else together (walking around town, jogging, angling, playing golf, etc). Or bring in a decoy. It could be a playful cat, an irritating child, even the weather. (‘The storm was growing nearer…’)

Or it could be a micro-story.

Suppose your characters are chatting in a restaurant.

A clumsy waiter keeps interrupting. He brings the wrong orders. He’s rude. He joins the conversation when he’s clearly not welcome.

The characters’ wry comments about him and the restaurant can add extra conflict to the dialogue. (“Why did you choose this hideous place?”/ “I didn’t. You did.”)

Maybe as the characters leave, they hear a plate drop in the kitchen, followed by a colorful curse.

The clownish incident is over but meanwhile, the characters have shared a lot of information with each other, and the reader – painlessly – while chiding the waiter.

And the story has gained dimension.

Very often, your story will have some of these elements in place already. You merely have to highlight them. If not, it’s just a moment’s work to drop them in.

Deep Structure is one of the things a contest judge – and literary agent – will look for when assessing a submission.

The perception of depth.

It’s the sign of a pro writer.

It’s how to write a short story that wins contests.

Use one or more of the approaches to how to structure a short story and you’ll no longer wonder how to win a prize for it.

How have you used Deep Structure to craft wonderful short stories? Share your tips in the comments!


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