People ask me from time to time how to write a short story. “I start off well, with a setting and characters and an interesting situation,” they tell me, “but it just gets bigger. Before I know it I have another novel.”
In my opinion, the actual writing of a short story isn’t all that different from long-form, novel prose – which is why I think people who are new to short story writing don’t struggle with those parts. But the overall plot, pacing, and especially ending of a short? That’s entirely different.
If you’re a plotter, you should know how your short is going to end before you begin. If you’re more of an exploratory writer, then you should be looking for something you can use to end your story as soon as you start.
What do I mean by “something you can use?” Let me give you an example.
The Mandalorian is super popular at the moment, and all episodes are available on Disney Plus. There’s something unique about it: instead of it being a serial series, like we’re mostly used to today, it’s episodic – you can often drop in and watch any of them and get the gist of what’s going on. You might miss some of the references and wonder why he loves that little green thing so much, but 90% of what’s set up in each episode is resolved by the end.
This makes it a brilliant study for how short story plots work.
I’m going to use Season 2, Episode 2 as my example – ‘The Passenger.’ In it our main character, the Mandalorian, has to escort a frog-like alien and her eggs to a planet – and of course, things get in the way.
The journey is going fine until he is pulled over by a couple of X-Wings who question him about his transponder not working. They find out he’s a wanted criminal and end up in a chase, which leaves the Mandalorian and his passenger stuck on an ice planet. As they work out how to escape, they wake up a nest of alien spiders and its huuuge queen, and after a big fight, they’re rescued by the X-Wings, who then say that they looked further into his profile and saw he’d saved one of their generals, so they let him go. They get the ship flying again and the episode is done.
This follows a very basic short story plot format – and feel free to use it:
- Character wants something,
- Something gets in the way of them achieving it,
- They try to overcome it but fail,
- Try again,
- Something unexpected happens that may or may not help,
- They get what they want, or they don’t.
(Kudos to the excellent Write Short Stories And Get Them Published by Zoë Fairbairns for that little plot format breakdown.)
So in this episode of The Mandalorian, we have:
- MC wants to get to planet, (objective)
- Attacked by X-Wings and gets stranded, (obstacle)
- Ship breaks and they can’t fix it, (fail)
- They wake up the spiders and are attacked,
- Saved by the X-Wings, (unexpected)
- They fly away, (get what they want)
So that’s a very basic and successful short story structure, and it will feel logical and complete to watch. But it’s the execution of each step that helps this feel even better, even more like a complete story.
For example, the story would have felt just as whole if the Mandalorian had been able to kill the spiders and fix the ship himself. But it would feel flat, boring, because there’s no setup to that ending. But by bringing the X-Wings back in – the initial problem – it creates a circular sense of completion that satisfies the viewer. The twist of the original problem being the surprise solution to the story works.
This is a short story plot device that’s often called Chekhov’s Gun: if there’s a gun on the table in a short story, it needs to be fired by the end. Or put more simply, you should be using the things you set up in the story at the end to make it feel like a whole piece.
This episode even has a b-plot that does the same: the baby keeps trying to eat the frog lady’s eggs. In the very last scene, the baby slips one of the eggs into its mouth. It’s not relevant to the plot in any way, it’s just a little reference to that ongoing tension in the episode, designed to round it off in a funny way.
How else could they have ended this episode? Well, they have a pot of the frog-lady’s eggs with them, which she’s very protective over, but the baby keeps trying to eat them. They have value, and the viewer is already familiar with them. Maybe they could have been poisonous to the big spider queen thing? They could have seen a baby spider eat one and die, then launch one into the maw of the spider queen, killing it. That would have been a satisfying ending too, though not as good as the one we have now, because it would leave the X-Wing thing as a loose end.
A technically successful but poor ending? Have Mando launch his jetpack rocket at it. It works, and we’re aware he has one, but it hasn’t been referenced at all through the episode, so it coming out of nowhere at the end to fix the problem feels wrong.
I hope this has helped you understand short story endings a little more. If you want to learn more, I really would recommend watching every episode of The Mandalorian with a critical, short story eye – especially the first half of each season, because those episodes are even more self-contained.
And of course, a blog post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t plug my book – a collection of 14 fantasy short stories that take place one after the other in the same setting – which is available on Amazon and Kobo. ❤