Eight-Point Story Guide
It is often said that you should write about what you know about. I would amend that to say, better still, write about what moves you, your passions, dreams and desires. You have to get into the midst of the story before even you, the writer, knows what it is you are trying to say. Character drives plot, but the underlying theme, the message, is what holds the narrative together.
Once you give birth to your characters, they are responsible for their own actions, and the effects caused by those actions. Put a volatile character in a compromising situation and he will swing out with both fists; neither he nor you will be able to prevent it. Put temptation in the way of a thief and just watch his eyes light up as he sees the main chance.
Are we, the reader, interested in these people? Do we want to follow their story? Do the characters start at point A and shift subtly, cleverly, gradually and convincingly through dilemma, reversals and crisis to point B? Will the brute learn self control; the thief not to take what isn't given? Do they have obstacles to overcome? Most important: is there conflict? All stories progress through conflict: action and reaction.
What makes our story special, what draws in the reader, then, is not the underlying mechanics of plot, but the characters. Great characters move the audience and, as plot unfolds through conflict, great villains make great stories.
Once born, before a word of narrative goes down on paper, writers should sketch out biographies of their characters, their ages, idiosyncrasies, disappointments, hopes and dreams, not caricatures or stereotypes, but flesh and blood originals with all the qualities, doubts and nervous tics that make us all one-offs. Characters need a past, a network of relationships. They will show the reader just a fraction of this in the drama, the tip of the iceberg, and then usually at a time of crisis. But from this study, the writer should be able to extract the essence of their characters and summarise them in a few sentences.
In a short story, every word has to carry its own weight, justify its existence. The writer must make use of suggestion, atmosphere, nuance, the subtly implied gesture. The short story weaves fine lines more than broad strokes. Explanation is death.
The Eight-Point guide here comes from my book Making Short Films: The Complete Guide From Script to Screen, and applies equally to the short story format as it does to the short screenplay.
1. Introduce main character(s); set the scene.
2. Give the character a problem, obstacle, obsession or addiction.
3. Let the character work out a plan to overcome the problem.
4. Before setting out to solve the problem, there may be a moment of doubt that will require the hero to seek advice from a mentor: teacher, best friend. This is an opportunity to let the audience know more about the problem and weigh it up in their own minds. What would they do?
5. With new resolve (and often a magical gift from the mentor: the watches Q gives James Bond; Dorothy's ruby slippers), the hero sets out to overcome the problem, obstacle, obsession or addiction.
6. Overcoming the problem or challenge (getting the girl; escaping tyranny; saving the world) will be met by extreme opposition from the rival, who will usually have greater but different strengths and will in some ways bear similarities to the hero: the nemesis is the hero's dark side.
7. The hero will appear to fail in his quest. He will glimpse defeat, even death, and will require superhuman effort to overcome this daunting final task.
8. The hero wins the final battle, with an opponent, or enemy, or with himself, and returns to his natural state wiser, or stronger, or cured, but not necessarily happier. The journey has made him a different person. He has glimpsed death and can never go back to the simplicity of what he once was.