Plot and Theme

This session introduces the main types of plots in shrt story writing and briefly describes the terms subject and theme discusses principles of writing fiction and the main characteristics of short stories.




The subject is what the story is about — that is the topic, for example 'romantic love', 'mother-daughter relationships', 'jealousy', 'fate', etc. A short story normally only deals with one or two subjects.



The theme is the central message of the work. The theme can be expressed in sentence forms, for example, true love can overcome all obstacles, people shouldn't tamper with nature, jealousy is destructive). Themes can be implied and/or explicitly stated. A short story usually focuses on one central theme, but may also touch on other themes.



All of your characters should have a motive for acting the way they do (even if the characters themselves don't know the motives). The motives of the central characters in a short story drive the story. In The Gift of the Magi, Della's motive, explicitly stated, is a strong desire to demonstrate her love for Jim in a tangible way.



The plot refers to the sequence of actions and events as presented in the written work, not necessarily in chronological order. An example of plot not presented chronologically would be a story which opens with a hero in danger and then goes back to explain how the situation came about. Subplots are the less important stories that weave in and out of the main story. Action stories, for often have subplots of friendship and/or romance. Short stories usually don't have subplots.

Short story plots often follow one of these types.

  • Internal conflict: the main character has to make a difficult decision or face an uncomfortable truth. The story ends with the main character gaining insight that allows the decision to be made or undergoes a pyschological and/or emotional change that allows the truth to be confronted. The story Phillip and Me is a story that emphasises internal conflict.
  • External conflict: beween people (physical and/or psychological) or between man and nature. At the end of the story, one side wins and the conflict is resolved. Contemporary short stories dealing with external conflict tend to focus on psychological aspects. Even stories dealing with physical battles, such as The Most Dangerous Game (a story in which one man hunts another) or Leningen versus the Ants, normally involve a psychological battle or an internal test of will.
  • Mystery: there is a mystery to be solved or explained. At the end of the story, one of the characters (e.g., a detective) solves the mystery, or the reasons for strange events are shown or hidden secrets are revealed. The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs is an example of a mystery story.
  • Trick ending: the reader is misdirected to expect one or two possible endings. However, the expected ending is not given. The ending should be surprising, but believable in the context of the story.
  • Unplotted stories: these reveal insights into life by reporting daily life events. An example of an unplotted story is B.J. McLean's The People who Walk on their Hands, which describes a brief enounter between two people at a charity function. Although it is not based on a conflict-driven plot, it is well structured, works with meaningful themes and reveals insights into the two main characters. Some literature is experimental in nature, with conventions of plot, characterisation and narration being abandoned. This doesn't mean that the story is meaningless, but it does mean that there is more work for the reader in trying to interpret what the work is trying to say. An example of a more abstract story is Peter Lin's A Plain Brown Box.

Longer stories often have several different types of plot interwoven into one work. In The English Patient, for example, there is internal conflict (a man and a woman must decide whether to have an illicit affair, a nurse has to overcome the loss of several friends) a mystery to be solved (the patient's identity), and a mystery to be revealed (the fate of his lover). Short stories, on the other hand, usually just follow one type of plot.


Sequence of Events

This is the order in which things happen in the story. If your story contains 20 events, will you go from 1-20 in order (i.e., chronological order)? A plot does not have to follow chronological time. The following devices can be used to move forward or backward in time.Flashback, flash forward, framing device and backstory are terms used to refer to specific plot devices.

The backstory refers to events that happened before the story itself but which are mentioned in the story. Again using 'Titanic' as an example, the death of Rose's father is part of the backstory. It happened before the events depicted in the film, but it is mentioned as the reason why Rose's family is in financial difficulty. While this device is commonly used in novels, it appears appear much less frequently in short stories.

If a character in a story suddenly starts remembering events in the past, the memory described is referred to as a flashback. This is useful in showing how past events are related to present ones, and is often used to fill in the backstory. Flashbacks can give insights into character or offers hints about what might happen. Because flashbacks tend to deal with people in the past looking further back in the past, verb tenses can be difficult to work with when writing extended flashbacks

This is the opposite of a flashback. The story suddenly moves forward in time. An example of a flashforward is would be the line "Who would have known that 10 years later, this dishonest little thief would become a priest" appearing in the middle of a story about a young criminal. This technique is used infrequently.

Foreshadowing refers to hinting at events that will come later in the story. For example, in (The Monkey's Paw, the opening describes the father as making a rash, 'fatal' decision in chess. This foreshadows his careless decisions later in the story which lead to the death of his son.

Framing Device
Some stories begin with a character remembering earlier events, with the main part of the story being set in this distant past and the story returning to the character remembering at the end. In this case, the parts at the begining and end are known as a framing device. The film 'Titanic' uses a framing device, with the elderly Rose remembering events that happened seventy years before.



Stories, particularly those based on conflict, are generally structured around the following plot elements:

  • The Opening
  • A disruption and consequences
  • Complications and consequences
  • A climax
  • A resolution


The Opening

Aside from introducing the main characters (see course notes on characterisation), the opening of a short story often establishes the situation and the setting.

The situation refers to the set of circumstances in which the work begins (e.g., one of Franz Kafka's most famous stories, The Metamorphosis, opens with the protagonist waking up and discovering that he had turned into a cockroach). In The Gift of the Magi the situation is that Jim and Della, husband and wife, love each other but are struggling to make ends meet. In a short story, the situation is usually established very quickly, often within the first couple of paragraphs.

Setting refers to the places where the story takes place and the time (or times during which it takes place). The writer doesn't usually specify the exact location, but there are usually clues as to when and where the story takes place (an event on the news, a reference to a famous person or landmark, a description of a trend, a description of the clothes people wear, etc.). A short story usually involves very few physical locations and takes place within a short period of time.

The opening paragraph of the story can begin with a the sense of foreboding (a hint of something to come later in the story, usually something bad), an arresting statement that immediately catches the readers attention, a description of a character, a passage of action or a description of the setting. The following are examples of opening paragraphs

Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlor of Lakesnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly. Father and son were at chess, the former, who possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes, putting his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment from the whitehaired old lady knitting placidly by the fire.

"Hark at the wind," said Mr. White, who, having seen a fatal mistake after it was too late, was amiably desirous of preventing his son from seeing it. (From The Monkey's Paw, by W.W. Jacobs)

It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. (From Malice Aforethought, by Francis Iles)
She was one of those pretty and charming girls born, as though fate had blundered over her, into a family of artisans. She had no marriage portion, no expectations, no means of getting known, understood, loved, and wedded by a man of wealth and distinction; and she let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education. Her tastes were simple because she had never been able to afford any other, but she was as unhappy as though she had married beneath her; for women have no caste or class, their beauty, grace, and charm serving them for birth or family, their natural delicacy, their instinctive elegance, their nimbleness of wit, are their only mark of rank, and put the slum girl on a level with the highest lady in the land. (From The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant)
North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces. (From Araby, by James Joyce)
Physical Action
Tub had been waiting for an hour in the falling snow. He paced the sidewalk to keep warm and stuck his head out over the curb whenever he saw lights approaching. One driver stopped for him but before Tub could wave the man on he saw the rifle on Tub's back and hit the gas. The tires spun on the ice. The fall of snow thickened. Tub stood below the overhang of a building. Across the road the clouds whitened just above the rooftops, and the street lights went out. He shifted the rifle strap to his other shoulder. The whiteness seeped up the sky. (From Hunters in the Snow, by Tobias Wolff).


Disruption and Consequences

The disruption is whatever causes conflict or changes the situation in any way. This part of the story introduces the conflict, the mystery or the decision to be made. The disruption sets into motion the events that drive the rest of the story In short stories, the disruption usually comes very early on, often within the first couple of paragraphs as paert of teh opening. In The Gift of the Magi, the disruption is simply the impending arrival of Chistmas. This is the event that has the consequence of Della haivng to take action to ensure that she can give her husband an ideal present. Stories are often built upon a series of such consequences. Longer stories, such as those in novels, often feature what are called complications — these are events that temporarily prevent the characters from fulfilling their motives. They often have little relation to what went on before, but once introduced into the story effect what happens next.



This is the deciding point (e.g., when the crime is about to solved, when the secret is about to be revealed, when the hero faces the villain in a final battle). In the part leading up to the climax, the story should show 'mounting tension' or 'rising action'; this means that the action and/or sense of suspense becomes intensified.



This is when the conflict is decided, the villain is defeated, the mystery is revealed, the decision is made.



Some stories end with the resolution, but others include a denouement which comments on what has happened or shows how a character has changed. For example, the play Romeo and Juliet ends with the following commentaty:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.


Writing from Personal Experience

When writing fiction you are free to write about anything you want: ghosts in Argentina, soldiers in WWII, xykomorphs from the country of Grlanyph beyond the great deserts of Oshk. But where do your ideas come from?

Writers often make use of personal experience--things that happened to them, things they saw, people they met. This is the principle of Write What You Know. You can try to imagine what it would be like to be an African doctor in a remote village trying to educate people about AIDS. But it would be very difficult to accurately describe the setting, the medical procedures, the hospital administration and even the protagonist's motives.

Often short stories are based on interpersonal relationships. Think of all the people you know well--friends, family members, teachers, classmates, neighbours, etc. Can you think of any relationship that. . .

  • improved in dramatic way?
  • was broken because of something that happened?
  • led to you to better understand yourself or another person?
  • changed your attitude for the better or worse?
  • affected your development for the better or the worse?

Such a relationship could be the basis of an interesting story.

Another method of brainstorming for ideas is to think of a scene from your childhood or teenage years that remains vividly in your memory (e.g. a place, a view, a conversation overhead). The scene is probably vivid for a reason--think of why it may have special meaning to you.

Write down as many words as you can to describe the memory (use all five senses if you can). If you can't think of the exact word in English, write it in Chinese and look it up later. Try to use concrete words (remember: Show, don't tell)

Once you have the basis for a story, you need to transform it. Transformation involves taking your personal experience and altering some elements to turn it into fiction. Unconscious transformation occurs when memories do not accurately represent what really happened.

Conscious transformation involves deliberately changing names, appearances, setting, etc. When describing what happened to you, for example, you may write in the third person and give yourself a new name. You might also shorten the time frame, strip away unnecessary characters, merge two or more real people into a fictional character and add scenes or omit scenes. Your choices will depends on what and you want your reader to focus on.

Everyone has a tale worth telling. What is yours?



Read a short story (you may like to choose one of the stories in the online readings section, or you may wish to look at a story that you have already read) and answer the following questions.

  1. What is the subject of the story.
  2. What is the situation that opens the story?
  3. Where and when is the story set?
  4. How much time elapses during the telling of the story
  5. How many characters are mentioned? Who are they?
  6. What are the main themes of the story?


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