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How To Write A Short Story Outline

Writing a short story outline could be the difference between creating a story that people want to publish, or one that will leave people scratching their head in confusion.

Although they’re only a few thousand words long, short stories can be complex, with various characters, strands of plot, and various themes running throughout them. Making an outline can be vital in keeping track of it all, and helping make sure your story makes sense. 

In this guide, we offer advice on how to write a short story outline. We'll take a look at the core elements of a story outline, and offer prompts and examples for each stage of the process. 


What Is A Short Story Outline?

A short story outline is a written map of the main plot points of your story, the scenes, and the emotional beats that happen to the characters within it. 

Lots of writers love using outlines, especially the planners out there. In using an outline, you can see how your story is structured to help make sure you’ve covered everything you need. It also helps keep you focused when it comes to the act of writing the story itself and can help you overcome writer's block

Let’s take a look at what you can do before you start outlining your short story.

Short Story Outline

What Do You Need To Make A Short Story Outline?

Before you can start to build your short story outline, it can help to have a few things defined so that the process flows easier. Let’s take a look at what they are. 

Create Your Characters

One of the biggest components of any story is the characters. In many cases, they’re the vehicle that takes you through the tale, so if you want to create a solid outline for your short story, it helps to understand them.

Many authors have different techniques for creating characters, but one of the simplest is to use a questionnaire. The Bone Structure is one effective question-based method that prompts you to examine the three dimensions of a person: their physical appearance, their sociological influences, and their psychological state of being, which is often a consequence of the first two. 

Asking questions about how tall your character is, what curious physical features they have, who they hung around with at school, and the influence that all has on them as people helps you flesh out and bring to life your fictional person. 

There are some other key components around creating your characters, but we'll look at that further along in the process. 

Think About Potential Plot Points

When it comes to short stories, you don’t have a lot of words to play around with. The average length of a short story is about 6,000 words, and many publishers have limits that cut off at around this point. As a result, you can’t have a lot of plot points in there, otherwise it’ll end up becoming a novel. 

So when thinking about what might happen in your story, it helps to keep it simple. You can, of course, still include twists and turns. It’s just that the scale and scope of the story have to be more focused. 

Consider Your Theme

When it comes to writing tips, something that many authors and teachers struggle to explain is theme. It is perhaps the vaguest part of creative writing, sometimes requiring a level of analysis and reflection to understand it in a story. It’s also something many writers say comes out as they write the story, which is all well and good. But I think this often comes down to a lack of clarity and understanding of theme. The vagueness surrounding it doesn’t help!

Theme is simply what your story is about, the point behind you writing it. It’s often a statement, and your story is the means by which you prove its truth. 

For example, the theme of Romeo and Juliet is that true love defies death. The fact that the pair died because of their love for one another proves this statement’s truth—in the context of the story.

If you can define your theme before you start writing and outlining your short story, you may find the process much easier. 

The Process Of Outlining A Short Story

So, now we know what a short story outline is and the ingredients you need to help construct one; let’s take a look at a step-by-step guide to building it up. 

It’s important to remember that the advice below is just that: advice. Everyone writes and outlines their stories differently. What works for one writer might not work for another, so try different things and see what works for you.

Understand What Your Character Wants

You may have come across different methods of writing a story, like the three-act structure, but what a story often boils down to is Character A wanting something and the world conspiring to stop them from achieving that. 

To understand what your character wants, ask yourself:

  • What do they desire more than anything in the world?
  • How far would they go to get it?
  • What could stop them from realizing their dream?
It can also help to ask what your character's biggest fears are. What do they dread more than anything in life? Sometimes the answers here can give you ideas for a forced journey or turn of events. 

What Stops Them From Achieving Their Goal? The Conflict

The glue that binds your reader to your story is in many cases the conflict. When a story is described as flat or boring, it’s often because there isn’t enough happening; there are not enough obstacles in the path of the characters to make the story interesting to follow. 

That is essentially what conflict is—obstacles that stop your characters from getting what they want. Sometimes the outcome is positive, in which case your character may grow in some way, like learning a new skill or the ability to use magic. Other times the outcome may be negative, maybe seeing them suffer injuries which can leave the reader wondering what may happen next. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, a mystery, or a romance, conflict is vital to the story. 

As an example, Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings wants to destroy the One Ring. To do that, he has to overcome trolls, goblins, orcs, Nazgul, corrupted men, and a lot of miles. The story structure is simple but it is riddled with conflict and obstacles to try and prevent him from achieving his goal, which makes it thoroughly enjoyable to read. 

The Defining Moment In The Story

One of the most important parts of your short story is the defining moment, the point to which everything has been building up to get to.

In short fiction, this often comes in the form of a decision, or some life-changing or deeply reflective moment that prompts both the character and reader to think. 

Now this isn’t the case in every short story, but so often stories build up to these defining moments. If you’ve written your story with a theme in mind, this could be a good place to hammer that home. 

The Resolution 

The final part of your short story outline is the resolution to the story.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received for writing an ending for a short story is to keep in mind that life for all of the characters will go on beyond the final word—unless they all die. If, for example, a character has undergone a life-changing moment, there’s no immediate need to show them as a changed person. Instead, you can merely suggest the change that they’re about to go through after the story.

Endings don’t always have to be happy, but there’s a growing trend in uplifting and satisfying endings, so it’s always worth playing about with a few different options. 


Key Takeaways On Writing A Short Story Outline

  • Before you start your outline, it can help to understand who your characters are, what they want, and what could stop them from achieving that.
  • Once you know what your character wants and potential obstacles, you can think about that all-important turning point, an epiphany, or some event that could force change upon them.
  • Endings should be satisfying where possible, and although they can be dark and sad, there’s a growing trend toward uplifting conclusions.

About Richie Billing
Richie Billing writes all kinds of stories, but mostly tales set in fantasy worlds that explore the perspectives of marginalized people and the issues we face in our own world. His short fiction has been widely published, with one story adapted for BBC radio. Richie hosts The Fantasy Writers’ Toolshed podcast where he interviews experts and bestselling authors. Richie also works as an editor and teaches creative writing. Find out more at

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