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English 7-10

6 Plot Rules for Narrative Writing

Many Year 7 and 8 students struggle with writing short stories. In this post, we give you 6 rules for plotting the perfect short story.

Do you find it difficult to come up with story ideas when asked to compose a narrative? Do you struggle to create a plot that can fit neatly within the word limit of an assignment? In this post, we’ll give you 6 plot rules for narrative writing and help you take your ideas from raw concept to high scoring short story.

 

6 Plot Rules for Narrative Writing

Whether it’s a short story or a novel, constructing a well-balanced, well-paced and neat plot can be tricky.

For most school assessments you will be asked to compose either short stories or personal accounts such as journal entries. In this post, we’re going to focus on composing short, fictional narratives but the ideas here are equally applicable to writing personal accounts of real-life experiences.

Accounts of real-life experience, even though you already know what happens, still need you to structure them and make decisions about the boundaries of your account and how best to reveal the sequence of events.

To begin with, let’s look at what a plot actually is.

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What is a PLOT?

A plot – also called a narrative – is the outline of events that occur in a story.

There is some distinction between plot and story:

  • Story is the order in which the narrative occurs
  • Plot is the key events of the story.

Consider the following example highlighting the distinction between plot and story in the conclusion to Cinderella.

  1. The Prince searches for Cinderella with the glass shoe
  2. Cinderella’s sisters try on the shoe but it does not fit
  3. The shoe fits Cinderella’s foot so the prince finds her.

Ansen Dibell points out that in this case the “plot” consists of just points 1 and 3, whereas the “story” involves all three parts. This is because the sisters trying on the shoes is not an essential element in the plot as it does not directly change the result of the story.

The plot, therefore, is the bare and broad outline of what happens. The order in which these events are told and the incidents that occur between these key points, are considered the “story”.

 

Short stories have simple plots

Short stories can range in length from micro-fiction of just a few words or sentences to around 20,000 or 30,000 words. And most short stories are around 5000 words in length, which is a common limit imposed by journals that publish short stories.

In high school, you will rarely be asked to write more than about 1500 words. And most of your narrative compositions will be much shorter at just a few hundred words.

This means that you have very few words with which to work and very little space to develop both character and story.

This makes the task both easier and harder. You may not have to write that much, but you need to be very economical with plot, structure and language in order to tell your story effectively in so few words.

The golden rule when plotting short stories is to KEEP THE PLOT SIMPLE.

Most short stories revolve around a single event and its consequences; a moment in time, a single idea, or a turning point in someone’s life. They are also often limited in space and the events might take place within a single setting.

Consider, for example, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s 1200-word short story “One of these Days” in which the events occur entirely within a humble dentist’s surgery. The plot is very simple:

  • The mayor comes to get his tooth removed
  • But the dentist refuses, then eventually,
  • The dentist agrees to pull out the tooth.

The real story lies in what is revealed about the character of the mayor and the dentist and the nature of politics in the town where the story is set. It is a story that reveals a lot about the nature of power relationships. Yet there is very little “action” and the simple plot contains no twists or sub-plots.

The story is also very economical in its use of language, offering very little direct description of the characters and instead allowing them to “show” themselves through their dialogue and body language. This is what you should aim for.

But how do you get there? Let’s have a look.

 

Getting started – 6 plot rules for narrative writing

Okay, so what do you need to consider when plotting a narrative? There are a range of questions you need to ask yourself when plotting a narrative:

  • What is your main idea?
  • What is your narrative about?
  • What is your word limit?
  • Where do you begin your story – at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end?

Let’s have a look at some rules for engaging with these questions.

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1. The idea

The plot of a short story should be simple, yet the most common mistake junior writers make is to try to squeeze a novel-length plot into a short story.

You can’t really write a sprawling action adventure in which the hero saves the world in just 1000 words. This ultimately results in a breathless run from start to finish without any development of character or any satisfying development of suspense or tension. Indeed, what you end up with is really just a story outline.

You won’t get good marks for a continuous sequence of one thing happening after another without any of those moments being fleshed out.

This doesn’t mean your idea is worthless by any means. It means your idea needs to be carefully honed and developed by finding a key moment in that bigger plot that you can develop into a standalone incident.

Consider the following (rather clichéd) plot outline:

  1. The hero is left for dead
  2. The hero goes through a long period of training and recovery
  3. The hero begins an investigation to track down would be killers
  4. The hero experiences a number of complications along the way
  5. The hero finally confronts their nemesis and brings them to justice

This is far too long for your short narrative! Yet each of these moments contains the potential for an excellent standalone scene or short story!

For example, you might just take the opening “The hero is left for dead” and focus on the protagonist returning to consciousness and trying to remember what happened. You could emphasise their struggle, physical discomfort, their anger and frustration, but you won’t really have sufficient word length to go much beyond this scene.

This story could suggest that this is just a beginning: the start of a sequence of events that will follow on from here, but not be told here.

Or, the story could finish abruptly. Perhaps, in a tragic twist, one of the original attackers might come back to see if they did the job properly, giving the story a sad and seemingly futile ending.

Either way, one single developed scene would score higher to most markers than a sprawling underdeveloped epic.

Remember, you won’t receive more marks for cramming more story in!

 

2. Write about what you know

A common but very useful piece of advice when writing is to write about what you know. This means, write about things you have experienced yourself.

This advice might seem limiting, but it is very sensible for young writers as it will allow you to develop more confidence. The more challenging task of writing effectively about places, people, or experiences unfamiliar to the author is a skill that can take time to develop. It is something that you must practice.

Most authors write in a semi-autobiographical manner. They may borrow episodes from their own lives or the lives of their friends and family and incorporate these into their work.

For example, if a writer has divorced their partner they will be much better placed to write about such a process. They can present insights into both the legal complexity and the emotional difficulties that surround that process. This could certainly be done through research and imagination, but personal experience will give the author a significant head start and their work may ultimately seem more emotionally authentic.

While most Year 7 & 8 high-school students are unlikely to have divorced their partner, they will no doubt have experienced a range of intense emotional experiences. Any of these may be worthy of dramatisation.

Key moments in our lives often make great stories because they are very relatable to readers who have been through a similar experience, or revealing and engaging for those who have not.

If structured well, a real experience can make either great autobiography or great fiction.

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3. Write about conflict

Most stories contain some kind of conflict at their heart. These conflicts may be internal, such as a struggle with depression or addiction or a difficult decision. Or, they may be more external – such as the struggle of a character versus the environment or against an antagonist.

Not all stories require a human antagonist and the antagonist might not always be obvious, but they are usually present in some form.

For example, it might be two sides of character’s personality – consider Gollum arguing with himself in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Or it could be nature itself, as in the Robert Redford film All is Lost, in which a solo sailor struggles against the weather and the raging sea.

The antagonist might even be society itself, as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, where the protagonists live in oppressive, conformist societies that leave them little freedom of expression.

What you need to do is think about your own struggles in life and what you learned from them in retrospect.

Ask yourself, is there a story to be told about conflict you have experienced?

 

4. Focus on why is your story worth telling!

One of the most difficult decisions to make is where to begin your story. To do this you really need to know what your story is about. If you don’t know your destination, it is difficult to know which platform to catch the train from.

You must ask yourself, is there a message or a moral to the story?

Most stories have some kind of point to them, or seek to create an emotional response in the reader. The plot of a story may be simple, but a bigger concern is the question of why the story is being told in the first place:

  • Does it reveal something of human nature?
  • Does it question established truths?
  • Does it seek to highlight the plight of people in particular circumstances?

For example we can ask these questions about Cinderella. What is it really about?

On the surface Cinderella is a “rags to riches” story about an innocent young woman who is bullied and neglected by her step-mother and whose patience and perseverance are rewarded with a magical invitation to the royal ball and, ultimately, marriage to a prince. But what is the message of the story? Is the message of the story that truly good people will be rewarded in life? Or is it telling us that we should never give up hope of a happy ending, however bad our situation may be?

Asking yourself why your story is worth telling is a key stage in developing your idea. Here are some questions you should ask yourself when developing the plot:

  • Will this appeal to other people?
  • Will they be moved by it or learn something from it?
  • Does it draw attention to a contemporary dilemma or reveal something about the nature of modern society?

In many ways the motivation for telling the story is almost more important than the story itself, because it will keep you more focused on the central message. Remember, it is easier to craft your story around a message / idea, than for you to try to tack some apparent meaning on to a story that isn’t well suited to it.

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5. Plan around your word count or time limit

Are you a professional author? Have you been given a deposit to write a novel? If you answered no to one of these questions then you need to think carefully about how much you are expected to write and balance your story to fit within these limits.

If you have an 600 word limit, then you’re not going to be able to spend 400 words developing the setting or describing a secondary character. You want to do some quick maths in your head and consider how many words you have for each section. Or, if you’re writing under exam conditions, you want to set some time limits on how long you can spend writing each section.

You should ask yourself:

  1. How many words or minutes can you devote to the beginning or set-up of the story?
  2. How much to the middle and end?

While the plot should be simple, you still need to balance the story structure so that it is well-paced and only gives information relevant to the story.

Not all stories are symmetrical in structure, of course, and don’t neatly divide into a beginning, middle and end. Despite this, it is important to try to work out the weighting of your story so that you don’t, for example, spend twenty-five minutes on set-up and characterisation in a half-hour assessment and leave only five minutes for telling the story itself.

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6. Be economical with your storytelling

Choosing the overall sequence of events, what scenes to include, and the order in which they are revealed are the most important aspects of storytelling.

Even when writing a simple anecdotal account of a holiday, the author must choose where to start. At home? In the taxi? On the plane? Or upon arriving in the hotel room? The story may even begin at the end and then cut back to the beginning to engage the readers’ desire to discover how the protagonist got into their situation.

Short stories are, well, short and you need to get the story started very, very early in your piece. Many students make the mistake of giving slabs of information about the character and setting before any events in the story actually take place. This kind of “exposition” in which detail and information is revealed, need not be so direct, and can be done in a much more subtle way that incorporates it into the action.

Without wishing to go into a full explanation of the differences between showing and telling,  you need to find a way to get information into the story more dynamically.

To consider some dos and don’t of this, let’s consider a made-up story about a policeman, let’s call him John Cougar, who has worked for the LAPD for thirty years and is on the brink of retirement?:

  • Don’t: Spend two paragraphs outlining his background and career history. This will bore the reader and waste the few valuable words you have to spare.
  • Don’t: Tell the reader”John Cougar was a tough cop who had worked for the LAPD for thirty years…”. This will spoon-feed the reader and tell rather than show them what kind of cop John Cougar is.
  • Do: Reveal this information dynamically in the course of the action – “Lieutenant Cougar’s heart pounded in his chest as he entered the dark lane. In all his thirty years working for the LAPD, he had never felt so scared.” This will let the reader imagine things for themselves.

Why is this?

The second (simplistic and clichéd) example couches the information within a scene that involves action and tension, and makes the information more relevant. If we are just told that he worked for the police force for 30 years, then this is just a piece of background information. However, when it is included in the scene and linked with how scared Cougar is, it takes on a new role of emphasising the police officer’s fear. When you tell a story in this fashion, the reader is pulled immediately into the situation, rather than having to wade through two pages of set up before anything actually happens.

Remember, beginning in media res – “in the middle of things” – is a common strategy with short story writing.

Equally important in writing short stories is knowing what to include and what not to include. Only tell the reader what they want to know. For example:

  • We don’t need to know what school a character attended unless this directly impacts the story in some way.
  • We don’t need to read about a character waking up and taking a shower then having breakfast, unless what is revealed in this process is absolutely pivotal to the narrative.

What do we mean by this?

Take for example a common story idea for many students – a camping trip that goes wrong.

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Let’s have a look at the plot events of a student’s flawed composition:

  1. The student began their story at home, in the kitchen, with the protagonist having breakfast.
  2. They then walked to the school bus
  3. They got on the bus
  4. They chatted with friends
  5. They arrived at school
  6. They boarded another bus
  7. They arrive at the campsite.
  8. It is revealed that their evil teacher had secretly brought them to the forest for a Fortnight meets Hunger Games battle royale!
  9. The students fight for survival
  10. Only a handful survive!

It sounds interesting, so what’s wrong with this?

This narrative was three and a half pages long. The students only arrived at the campsite at the end of page 2. This left a page and a half for the student writer to describe all the really interesting things – the battle for survival between the students, the demise of the evil teacher, and who survived and in the end! Because the student had to fly through all the action, try to create some fear and tension, and bring the story to a resolution – it was a mess.

More importantly, none of the information given in the set-up  – what they had for breakfast; how they got on with their mum and dad; how messy their room was – was relevant to the story that was ultimately told.

It would have been much more economical to begin the story at the campsite, in media res (remember, this means “in the middle of things”). In this case, you would start with a more dynamic and immediate opening, such as a line of dialogue: “Does anyone actually know how to pitch a tent?”

Or, perhaps, you could start with some atmospheric description of the forest: “Suzanne looked around and all the towering pine trees made her feel very small and vulnerable. A crow squawked from within the canopy, she shuddered.”

Either way, starting such a story at the campsite would put the reader in the setting of the action right from the start and allow much more tension and expectation to build within the space.

 

What next?

Writing is a craft. This means it is something you get better at by practising it and reflecting on your successes and failures to learn from them.

To improve your creative writing, you must practise writing. You should try to regularly and seek feedback from your friends, family, and teachers on your written work. Don’t wait for homework tasks and assessment tasks to become a better writer, practice ahead of time.

 

Want to give your child a head start?

Years 7 & 8 are essential years for your child to develop their foundational reading and writing skills for High School. Matrix English term courses will give your child the skills and confidence to stay ahead of their peers. Book a free trial lesson and learn how we can help your child.

Written by Benjamin Cornford

Benjamin Cornford has a PhD in Early Medieval Italian history from the University of Cambridge and a Masters of Creative Writing from UTS. He has published poetry and short stories and is currently raising two young boys. He is at present working on a volume of poetry. He has taught at Matrix since 2012.

 

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