There is a basic plot structure for novels, movies, and plays. That structure is:
- Initial Incident
An initial incident sets the story in motion. Complications arise, often due to mistakes made by the protagonist. The protagonist faces some sort of crisis that causes them to change in some way. Based on this change they must settle the key conflict of the story in the climax. This leads to the denouement, in which the aftermath of the events is put into perspective.
This basic narrative structure has been used to tell stories as long as there have been stories. It can be used in short stories and is often used successfully. Short stories, however, can be more experimental. In some cases, there are only one or two brief complications that are dealt with, and the denouement may or may not be made clear. A short story can even revolve around a single incident or argument. A short story can focus on a major crisis or a minor epiphany. The denouement can be made clear or left up to the reader’s interpretation.
Whether you choose to follow a traditional narrative structure or not, you should be aware of it, and of the reader’s expectations. A story without conflict is no story at all. If you leave an ending up to interpretation, don’t be surprised if the interpretations differ wildly from your expectations. If you wander from the traditional structure, you should do so with a plan and a purpose. Otherwise, you may find that your reader has been lost along the way.