March 13, 2023

Short Stories: Can They Still Have Character Arcs?

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m digging into the structure of short stories. We’ll explore how story length affects story structure and what that means for our plot—and especially character—arcs. Let’s take a look…

Recap: Story Structure Basics

I’ve written before about how our story’s structure is affected by shorter-length stories, specifically how we can adjust plot-focused beat sheets for the structure of short stories. As I mentioned in that post, one of the most obvious differences that a story’s length makes to story structure is the number of twists and turns needed to maintain narrative drive. That’s especially a concern in the long middle arc, which runs from around the 25% mark to around the 75% mark of our story.

Novel-Length Stories:

In a novel-length story, that middle arc takes up about 100-200 pages or 25-50K words, which is longer than an entire short story, or even many novellas. But the middle act isn’t just about adding page count to make the story novel-length, drag out the tension, or delay before we get to the “good stuff.” *smile*

How does story length affect our story's structure? Click To Tweet

Instead, the middle of our story should be the “meat” of the story, establishing conflicts and arcs. Novels need to set up obstacles and rising stakes here so the resolution in the final act won’t seem too easy and be unsatisfying. In addition, novels need subplots, deeper character development, and more attempts and failures to round out the story.

That’s one reason why some writers prefer using one of the more complicated beat sheets. They want more direction for that long middle act in their novels, and a more complex beat sheet includes more beats to provide more ideas, such as subplots and pinch points.

Short Stories:

In contrast, short stories (typically under 8-10K words) need to focus on only the biggest, most essential story events. Short stories don’t need to worry about a “sagging middle” or lots of complications in the plot. So if short-story writers use a beat sheet, one that can be stripped down makes more sense.

In general, the four major turning point beats (events that turn the story in a new direction) that we find in almost every story are:

  • Near 25%, a starting point for the main conflict:
    • an event that drags the protagonist into the situation —or—
    • an event that forces a choice to get involved.
  • Near 50%:
    • an event that changes the protagonist’s goals/choices —or—
    • an event that adds new stakes to the situation.
  • Near 75%:
    • an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution.
  • From about 80-95%, an ending point for the main conflict:
    • an event that forces the protagonist to face the antagonist.

Or if our story is super-short, we might even skip that 50% Midpoint beat (or combine the 75% and the 80-95% beats) and think instead about the functions of the three story acts:

  • introduce and set up story problem
  • add complications and/or raise stakes
  • confront problem and resolve

We can see this most-basic structure in how the romance genre is often stereotypically summarized: Boy meets girl (beginning), boy loses girl (raise stakes), and boy gets girl (climax).

Novelette/Novella-Length Stories:

As we increase the length, we can add various story structure elements to fill in the blanks. Novelettes (10-20K) can have a few more twists and turns, such as including Pinch Point beats to reveal more about the antagonistic forces or increase the stakes. Novellas (20-40K) can have even more, such as adding in a subplot.

Additionally, we can flesh out some of the less major turning points that might be stripped down to the bare minimum in short stories:

  • an Inciting Incident that starts the protagonist on the path toward the conflict
  • a Denouement that shows how the protagonist has changed

Story Structure & Character Arcs

Now all of that was focused on the plot events of our story, but story structure affects character arcs too. As an example, let’s take a look at how the story events (or beats) of a story’s structure also match the narrative drive of a character arc, such as in a romance with a character overcoming their fear of trusting others:

  • The Inciting Incident introduces the heroine to the hero, and boy, she does not trust him, or anyone for that matter.
  • At the End of the Beginning (25% First Plot Point), she has to work with him, and her distrust causes conflict that prevents them from making progress toward the story goal.
  • The Pinch Points make her trust him about minor things, forcing her out of her comfort zone.
  • At the 50% Midpoint, the hero calls her out on her trust issues and points out how they’re doomed to fail because of it.
  • In the 75% Crisis of the Black Moment, she has an epiphany about her trust issues, but now it’s too late to fix things.
  • The stakes of the 80-95% Climax rip her comfort zone to shreds and she takes a leap of faith, which involves trust in some way, to overcome the conflict.
  • In the Resolution, we see her interacting with the hero (and maybe with others) with her new-found trust on display.

Plot events trigger a character’s actions, reactions, and choices, and in turn those force the story in new directions, perhaps with new goals or priorities. Those new directions then trigger new plot events, and so on. The structure of events in a story affects and interacts with both plot and character arcs.

Story Length & Character Arcs

All that above means that just as story length affects the structure of plots, it also affects the structure of character arcs. Shorter stories obviously have less word count for digging into the character side of storytelling.

A couple of weeks ago, blog reader Gigi asked about how the internal journeys of characters could happen in short stories:

“To what extent should or could this concept be applied to short stories – or more precisely, to really short romance stories (ca. 5,000 words)?

Do you think that both protagonists – hero and heroine – need to have inner conflicts and have a character development in such short stories?”

That’s a fantastic question, and I have a multilayer answer for us:

  1. Immediately below, I’m touching on two aspects of character arcs that we need to understand as background.
  2. Then I’m linking to my guest post at Angela and Becca’s Writers Helping Writers, where I go into more depth with those two aspects and what they mean for our options.
  3. Lastly, we’ll continue back here with more details about how these approaches apply to romance or other multi-protagonist stories.

Aspect #1: 3 Types of Character Arcs

Depending on the plot of our story, some types of character arcs will be easier to tie closely with our main plot than others. The more tightly the character arc is tied to the plot, the easier it is to combine those word counts to fit a character arc into a shorter story.

What options do we have for including a character arc in shorter-length stories? Click To Tweet

In other words, one way to include a character arc in a shorter story is to think of how the arcand which type of character arccan be explored directly through the plot (or subplot for a medium-length story).

For example, a character struggling with internal conflict about their parent could have that emotional positive arc explored directly with the plot if the story is about the decision of whether to put their parent into a nursing home. Similarly, a flat arc of convincing others of the parent’s flaws could also work with that plot.

On the other hand, if the plot is about dealing with an overbearing boss, a positive or flat character arc of facing parental issues would be harder to fit into the word count of a shorter story, as those two story premises aren’t related. However, if the boss issue creates a downward spiral of failure for the character, a negative arc (such as succumbing to the same flaws as the parent) could fit.

Aspect #2: Depth of Character Arcs

In addition, we need to understand that each of those 3 types of arcs can be explored at various depths. Like many of my character-arc posts here on my blog, my post about a character’s internal journey that Gigi commented on focuses on a deep positive arc.

Do you know the different types of character arcs, and how some can be easier to include in short stories than others? Click To Tweet

Deep positive arcs tend to include more character emotions than other types of arcs (or than shallower positive arcs), as they feature elements like backstory wounds, self-sabotaging choices, false beliefs, ingrained fear, emotional armor, etc. The transformation that a character goes through as part of that arc involves hard changes that require vulnerability and new mindsets and digging into their fears. Not every genre or story is the right fit for that level of emotion in a character arc, however.

It’s also just as possible to have a simplistic positive arc. A character can change and grow without all the internal or emotional conflict of deep positive arcs. A character can simply recognize that they need to change their behavior to succeed, without all the introspection or emotional struggles of false beliefs, self-sabotage, fears, etc.

The same options for depth can apply to the other types of arcs as well. Obviously, the deeper the arc, the more word count is required to explore the struggles and emotions accompanying the change. So when trying to include a character arc in a shorter story, we also have the choice to just include a simplistic arc rather than a deeper one.

I write in the romance genre, where emotions are expected, so deep positive arcs are my default. However, the other types (or other depths) of arcs are just as valid and right for many stories.

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Character Arcs: Making a Long Story Short

Now let’s bounce over to my guest post at WHW, linked above, where I’m sharing more about character arcs, including:

  • descriptions of the 3 types of character arcs
  • more differences between simplistic and deep character arcs
  • a 4-step example of mapping a simplistic arc onto a story’s structure
  • 4 ways to flesh out our story’s structure for deeper arcs
  • 5 options for adjusting our story’s structure for character arcs in shorter stories

When you’re done, come back here for more about our additional options with muti-protagonist stories, such as romance stories.

Character Arcs for Multiple Protagonists

As mentioned in the last of the 5 options I mentioned in my guest post, when it comes to multiple protagonists, we can limit the number or depth of character arcs. Not every protagonist needs to have the same type or depth of character arc.

How can a short story include character arcs, even for multiple protagonists (like in a romance)? Click To Tweet

For example, in the romance genre, even novel-length stories often will have one of the protagonists go through a “bigger” emotional change than the other. It’s common for one of the romance protagonists to have a deep exploration of their backstory wound and false beliefs, and for the other protagonist to have a simplistic positive arc or maybe a positive arc with the elements of a deep arc (backstory wounds, false beliefs, fears, etc.) but they’re touched on in a shallower way.

In shorter stories, we can take advantage of that flexibility to concentrate our word count unevenly across our protagonists. One protagonist may not have much of an arc at all, or one might go through a flat arc rather than a positive arc.

As Gigi mentioned in her question:

“In my experience there’s an audience for short romance stories, featuring the totally-nice-guy-without-emotional-baggage-pursues-love-interest-no-matter-what-until-the-HE trope, not dissimilar to the prince in Perrault’s/Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty.

Readers root for the hero not because of character development but his perseverance to power through every seemingly insurmountable obstacle. So while the heroine’s character may have outer and inner conflicts and and an interesting inner journey, the hero’s character arc falls rather flat: from being happy to even happier.”

In my answer to Gigi, I pointed out:

“As you said, most modern romances have some sort of character arc for both protagonists, but even then, one of them often has a bigger arc than the other. So you’re absolutely right that a shorter story could adjust to have the less-arc protagonist go from a minor arc to potentially no arc at all. (We might not even give them any POV scenes.)

However, what you described is actually an arc, just a “flat” arc rather than a positive arc. In flat arcs, the character has a belief about the world that they work to get others to believe too. In a romance, the character might believe that they belong together, and thus persevere until the other character joins them in that belief. 😀

So, as you said, they wouldn’t be going through the inner conflict and change of a positive arc. But their arc from happy to happier and getting others to join in their world belief, is a valid flat arc.”

So when it comes to multiple-protagonist stories, we always have the option to depict different types or depths of character arc. That flexibility goes double for shorter stories.

Here are a few other examples of how we might adapt character arcs for multiple protagonists in shorter stories. We could…

  • think of the core message we want to share, such as our theme, and decide which of our characters’ arcs will better contribute to that message or theme. Then we could concentrate most of whatever word count we have for character arcs on that protagonist.
  • connect one protagonist’s arc to the main plot to allow for more word count and just touch on the other protagonist’s arc as part of the subplot or a minor obstacle.
  • design our protagonists’ arcs to either be a copy or a mirror-opposite of each other. Then we could let one of them carry the word count to explore the arc’s journey and let the other protagonist’s arc be explored mostly by the subtext. (The mirror version works especially well for hero-and-villain stories, where a villain acts like a second protagonist for the story, and they both share the same flaw but change in opposite ways, one turning the flaw into a strength and the other leaning into their flaw.)

The only limit to the flexibility of how we can approach character arcs in shorter stories is our imagination. We can make almost any approach work, and it all depends on the story we want to tell. *smile*

Have you ever wondered about how to handle character arcs in shorter stories? Have you read shorter stories that handled character arcs well? What do you think made their approach work for the story? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

Comments — What do you think?

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Sorry for the belated response, Jami, but thank you so much for both posts!

While I feel confident now in only one MC having a deep character arc, I do like your suggestion of character arcs of MC1 and MC2 being mirror-opposite of each other. That’s something I’ll certainly chew on for future short romance stories as it’ll be more interesting than one positive + one flat arc.

Thanks again! 🙂


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