How To Outline a Short Story: A Detailed Guide for Dummies in 4 Steps

How to write a short story outline, how to outline a short story
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How to outline a short story – When you have a story plot in mind, you already have a rough outline. You need to brush it up and organize the outline.

And that is what we are talking about today – how to outline a short story in an organized manner. Let us first understand what an outline is.

How to Outline a Short Story: What is a Story Outline?

A story outline is a plan you make for the story structure, key events, characters, and the main plot or twist of the story. It also includes the backstory and build-up of characters, and so on. This outline forms the base for writing your story.

Like novels and novellas – or to accomplish anything for that matter – short stories also need their share of planning.

A short story needs an outline more than the longer forms of writing. A book or a novel immerses you into someone else’s life which may or may not have a message – it is a story you take in. A short story, on the other hand, is designed to deliver a message to the reader. It needs to make its best impression on readers in a limited number of words.

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How to Outline a Short Story

Your hands may be itching to jot down that idea, but hold on – it’s worth the wait. Go through these simple steps on how to outline a short story.

1. Have A Short Story Idea in Mind

Having a story idea seems obvious but there is no way to start without one. You cannot think of outlining a story without a plot idea in your head. In case you don’t have one, then discover an idea for a new short story.

The best way to get short story ideas is to look up your favorite stories and find elements that might help you brainstorm. Check out some plot twists for children’s short stories here.

short story idea
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How to Outline a Short Story

When it comes to creative writing, there are broadly two types of writers – one who outlines in an organized manner and write accordingly. The other begins to draft right away.

The latter either has a sketch of the main plot and end of the story in mind or lets the words flow and speak for themselves. When you gain a level of traction with writing short stories, this is easy. But considering you are a beginner, it is better to note down your outline.

It doesn’t mean only beginners need short story outlines. The best short stories by experienced writers out there have had their outlines first.

2. Build Up Your Characters and Their Significance in the Story

How to outline a short story -You have your idea scribbled down. Great! It is time you build your main story characters and their need to be in the story. This step is as important as the plot structure of the story. I cannot stress this enough – without characters, there is no story.

A short story requires small yet vital attention to detail with the roles. Give your main character a name. Say he/she doesn’t have a name, then mark them as the lead role and get into the details later. Based on the plot, put down the most important traits of the character. You can describe the protagonist in one or two lines.

For example, it can be as simple as:  ‘Lead role (John) is a self-centered, money-minded person, who unintentionally destroys his relationships.’

The number of characters in a short story is also important. Unlike a novel where you can stuff in as many roles at different intervals, keep the characters in a short story only when necessary. Ideally, a short story with a maximum length of 7500 words has no more than five main characters. Among those five, one or two play the major roles and the rest the minor roles.

Long-form writing requires a lot of in-depth character development – if that is something you’re looking for, this post on JerryJenkins might help you.

outline short story character
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3. Focus on the Plot and Conflict in the Story

No matter how far or little you drag your story, keep it revolving on one point. Given the length of a short story, it is meant to be read in a single sitting. That means you need to keep the readers on their feet.

Highlight the conflicts and sudden twists in the story while you outline the story’s plot. Keep the tension building up to your climax point – to the peak of your plot. People cannot stop reading when you go against your protagonist’s key point.

While juggling with the tensions, keep it realistic as possible (also known as worldbuilding). Aim for a great climax and make sure people can relate to it at the same time. After all, that is why a story outline is important – to structure. Like mystery and thriller fiction novels, short stories have their side of fun when it comes to twists, so make the best of it in its short life.

There is a whole art to it when it comes to plotting a short story. It takes time. And there is no other way about it – you need to get your hands dirty to improve with it. Taking up a course with a professional can do wonders.

Here are some courses on Udemy to start with that I’ve handpicked for you. Apart from great ratings, some are on great discounts, check them out!

  1. The Basics of Writing a Compelling Short Story
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  2. Eight Easy Steps to Writing Short Stories
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  3. Writing Short Stories: The Essential Guide
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4. Make Your First Draft from the Outline

Now you have made it through all the steps of outlining your short story, great! Now it’s time you put down your first draft of the short story. Remember, this is your first draft only.

Keep your main plot outlined while still flexible with the ending. Draw up a draft where the words fall in place with the core of the story.

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How to Outline a Short Story

You will need to edit some parts, take out unnecessary details, and make it as clear as possible. The outline you drafted with structure, storyline, and characters will do most of the work. However, it does not determine the gaps that need to be filled in the story.

Sometimes, it doesn’t even determine the ending of the story. For the edits (when you’re typing), make use of some free online tools – but don’t rely on them. The tools serve can serve to be another small layer of edit work to your work.

Here is a list of free tools that I use for writing.

You will need to choose which way could bring out the best from the short story. Which way could make the most powerful impact on the reader. More importantly, the draft also tells you the estimated length of your story. Consider rephrasing sentences in order and fit the puzzle pieces in the most compact order.

Say it turns out too short, add more details to the story or the character’s persona. But keep it as firm as possible. Make points only when it is a dent worth filling. A reader can tell when you drag your story.

How to Outline a Short Story: Additional Tips

I outline some of the stories I write. Sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, I keep a mental note of how the storyline is going to flow. But in today’s world of Internet writing, I came across something that helped me with making notes before I began writing – Wattpad.

Hear me out: I do not promote Wattpad. But I decided to launch my first novella on Wattpad to see how it runs. And while drafting my story, they have a fantastic section for just making your story notes.

That is where I began organizing my short story plots better.

To those working on the computer for story writing, make use of this tool for the outline.

Tailpiece on How to Outline a Short Story

That brings us to the end of this post. While outlining a story has its benefits, it isn’t compulsory. Again, some writers prefer to begin writing down the story first. It differs from person to person. There is no hard and fast about it. Also, outlining a short story differs from person to person.

I covered these in four broad steps, another writer might have more specific steps. With the homework I did on short story writing, this is still my perspective on how to outline a short story.

Have any other methods to structure your story? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll be happy to discuss it.

Other posts you may like:

*This post contains affiliate link(s) where I receive a small commission at no additional cost of the products to you. I only recommend products that I trust. 

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Manas Patil

Hi there! I'm a 22-year-old dude all the way from India, I love traveling and building itineraries! Sign up and get your FREE COPY of my travel checklist to get the best of your next vacation!

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