How I plan short stories in 5 questions

I’ve been writing more short stories lately, and while I enjoy free-writing them (something I can’t do with longer works), I’m finding that my first drafts have been consistently terrible, needing rewrite after rewrite to get them to the same standards of my other work.

I’ve been trying not to constrain myself too much when doing short fiction, but I am a planner by nature too… So I’ve found a happy medium, in that answering the following questions helps me not churn out hot garbage of a story, but also lets me organically explore a scene better which is what I’m trying to do with this work:

1. What’s the problem?

Has somebody lost their wedding ring? Have they been kidnapped? Is a meteor about to crash into a town? (okay, maybe not that one)… For a short story, I try to focus in on one problem that can be solved (or not) in one sitting. More than one problem takes up too much space and takes away from the focus of the piece in my experience.

2. Whose problem is it?

Who is the main character? I give a very brief description of who they are, plus any other character who is likely to be directly involved in the story. This should be VERY broad strokes stuff, I try to give just one or two defining features and personality traits. I tend to agonize over names though, I hate almost everything I come up with!

3. Why is it a problem?

Why do the characters care about the problem? What is at stake for them? What is likely to happen if the problem gets solved, what might happen if they fail to solve it? I try to link this to death where possible: the death of a person, of a friendship, of a career, of the ability to make a choice…

4. Why haven’t they fixed the problem yet? Or, why now?

Why does the problem have to be solved right now in the story? Are they trapped in a room? Do they have a gun (or a metaphorical gun) to their head? And why have they waited until now to solve it anyway? Were they unaware of it? have they been running away from it? This and number three are good ways to build the character backstory.

5. What are three ways they might try to solve the problem?

The fun part, come up with three ways the characters might take to solve the problem. Try to keep it realistic to the character and the situation they are in, now think of how each way might fail – these are the attempts the character makes in the short story to succeed, it’s up to you which one (if any) end up succeeding in the end.

Next steps…

I’m trying to keep my answers to each question no longer than a paragraph long, so I’m not too attached to the answers and can change them quickly if I need to.

I tend to go through them all in one go, and then take a walk, mulling it all over for an hour. I then changing my answers again quickly to make it more interesting and unique as a concept. This is especially important for question five, as most of my initial answers tend to be very obvious and boring compared to my next set of answers!

I’ll probably develop this framework more as I get more experienced, and then repost it again. Let me know what you think, and whether you have any suggestions for how I could improve this!

About the author

DSM Griffin

My full name is Daniel SM Griffin (but call me Griff), a European (have been described as British), male human. My views and opinions (like my hair and teeth) are my own.