How to Create a Short Story Outline

The process of creating a short story is different for all writers. Some are able to sit down and roll with the punches, letting the plot unfold before their eyes. Others, though, require an outline, a basic layout of the story's main elements that provides the first draft's foundation. Considering the main conflicts, characters and ideas at the heart of your soon-to-be story can help you develop a road map for where the action might lead.


Conflict is the primary source of tension in a story that drives the plot forward. Joe Massucci, author of the thriller novels "Code: Alpha" and "Gorgon," suggests outlining your conflict by considering what your character's key problem might be. You can then brainstorm events that might increase the stakes, the climactic moment and the problem's potential solution. For example, your character's problem might be that she wants to go to Nashville and pursue a country music career, but no one will support her ambitions. You have numerous options for her story, including having her succeed or return home as a failure.

Main Characters

Short stories need characters that audiences can root for, identity with or even love to hate. One way to outline your protagonist's traits is to consider all the tools authors use to reveal character. These can include dialogue, thoughts, actions and what other characters say about him. You can also consider how your character might change throughout the story. In the beginning of your country music story, your character might be slightly insecure and unable to take criticism. By persevering and not giving up, though, she becomes more secure in her abilities, eventually enabling her to score a record deal.


Different settings carry different implications for the story. For example, Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" wouldn't be nearly as haunting without its setting of the isolated backroads of Georgia. Similarly, your story will be very different if your character is an actress seeking work in L.A. instead of a singer looking for a Nashville recording deal. Part of your outline can discuss what mood the setting might create and what time of year it might be. If you haven't been to the place, you can do research online to find descriptions and details that could be useful.


Screenwriting expert Robert McKee defines a theme as the central idea of a story that can be expressed in one sentence. Typically, it represents a moral or significant statement about an aspect of human experience and engenders a specific emotion in the reader. The shock readers experience at the end of "A Good Man is Hard to Find," for example, helps to communicate the theme that it's dangerous to judge others without looking at your own flaws. In your country music story, the theme might be that believing in yourself can help you overcome impossible odds to achieve your goals.


While an outline gives you a clear foundation to build on, you shouldn't feel forced to follow it. If your country singer wants to forget about her music career, leave Nashville and become a professional dog trainer, let her. Feel free to deviate from the outline or even abandon it altogether in order to write a story you find satisfying and interesting to readers. Massucci also suggests keeping your outline to short notes and phrases; a long outline can actually keep you from starting your actual story.