Writing Craft

How to Structure a Short Story

a simple story structure that works every time

Michelle Richmond
The Caffeinated Writer
5 min readFeb 24, 2023


image courtesy of Gia Oris via unsplash

I’d like to tell you about a simple, five part story structure that works for short stories in any genre. I learned this more than twenty years ago while teaching for Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City — back when you saw those yellow Gotham boxes on every street corner. It has served me well ever since, both as a writer of short stories and as a teacher.

Foundations of Novel Writing starts Oct. 1. Go here to learn more. (Save $50 when you use the code Medium50 at checkout.)

And maybe this is one thing I love about writing: the lessons you learn now about writing will serve you decades from now. The lessons you learned in kindergarten (if you had a good teacher ) still ring true for your writing today. Our brains process story now in much the same way our brains processed stories a thousand years ago. As Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story,

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution — more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on. Story told us what to hang on to.

If you have a story in mind but it isn’t quite coming together, you can use this simple mnemonic device to structure your short story:

  • Action
  • Background
  • Conflict
  • Development
  • End

We’ll be looking at each of these five elements in separate posts. Today, let’s concentrate on action.

This lesson is excerpted from my 5-week online class, Master the Short Story.

ACTION: Inciting event

Something must happen to make your story start. This is the inciting action/inciting event.

The short story “Dog Years” by Melissa Yancy opens with the Berger family “in a big-box store, one they have drive several miles out of their West LA neighborhood to find…”

They are putting things in their cart, including cereal boxes, arguing over the Cheerios. It’s a simple action, not particularly dramatic on its face. A simple conflict. What matters is that something is happening, however mundane. An inciting action need not involve car crashes, murder, fireworks, or death. It can simply be the stuff of everyday life, as long as something is happening.

Begin with a situation of instability that is demonstrated through ACTION, an inciting incident that sets off the events of your story. This is really where storytelling begins.

I just went back to one of my earliest published stories, “Down the Shore Everything’s All Right,” which first appeared in Glimmer Train and later in my debut story collection, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Here’s the first sentence:

We’re driving through the Lincoln Tunnel en route to Jersey when Ivan turns off the tape player and puts his hand on my thigh. I know what this means. It means he’s gearing up to tell me the story.

They may not be the most exciting first sentences in the world, but these opening lines contain action, and embedded in the action are a few questions. Who is speaking? Why are they going to Jersey? What is the story that Ivan has to tell? Why does the speaker seem so hesitant to hear it?


Down the Shore” happens to be a story about storytelling, which goes to show an inciting action doesn’t have to be enormous. The action here is that two people are driving to Jersey, and someone’s going to tell a story. It’s a basic who/what/where setup. Who is the unnamed I and Ivan, what is the hand on the thigh and the impending story, where is the Lincoln tunnel. As a reader, I generally prefer who/what/where to dialogue as an opening salvo, because a simple who/what/where grounds the reader, places us in space and time with a character or characters.

When you begin writing your story, the inciting action may come to you immediately, because the inciting action may in fact be the first spark of the story as it appears in your mind. If the inciting action doesn’t come to you naturally, ask yourself, “Why is this particular story being told by this particular speaker at this particular time?” That may give you the inciting action.

Of course, your inciting action will be the beginning of your story, but it is unlikely to be the beginning of the story. The fictional characters had implied fictional lives before the timeframe of your story and will have implied fictional lives after the time frame of your story (unless they die in your story). A story begins somewhere in the middle of the characters’ lives, somewhere in the middle of a thousand other implied stories.

There are exceptions, of course. The novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides begins

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

It’s a complex and brilliant novel that begins at the beginning. Most stories, of course, should begin in medias res.

If I were to tell the story of my life in chronological order, I would have to begin with the hospital room in the small town in Alabama where I was born. But that hospital room lacks drama (for me, at least, and for the reader, if not for my mother). I would quickly learn that a start-to-finish narrative of my life isn’t very interesting. I would need to begin with a point of action, perhaps a harrowing night ride by bus through Southern China, or the theft of my passport in Slovenia’s Julian Alps: an inciting action that contains trouble within it.

On the other hand, in high school I had a friend who was born in the back seat of a Volkswagen Bug on a rainy night in Peru. Her first moment of life contained all the drama and action necessary to begin a story. The story of her birth is a story worth telling, while the story of my birth is a bit on the dull side.

But I digress (some stories do). The point is: Story begins with an inciting action.

An inciting Action is a scene, containing a beginning, middle, and end.

It contains an initial action and the promise of more to come. It may also include the hint of a past story that will later come to light. Of course, this works for writing a novel too. It also works for memoir.

In the next post, we’ll talk about integrating background into your short story. If you want to learn more about writing and publishing short stories, join me for Master the Short Story.

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of two story collections and six novels, most recently the novel The Wonder Test, an Amazon Editors’ Pick.

Do you want to write and publish short fiction? Join my five-week course, Master the Short Story, to get the tools you need to start writing and publishing short stories.