The Different Kinds of Narrative Structure in Short Stories

All short stories, regardless of individual structure, include characterization, conflict and resolution, but exactly how the author chooses to bring together each of the story’s events and elements and then reveal them to the reader is called the story's narrative structure. The short story genre reveals many patterns and subgenres of narrative structures; some are familiar and comfortable, while others are innovative and fresh.Throughout literary history, authors have introduced, modified and created many different kinds of narrative structures.

Linear Narration

Linear stories are the most common of the narrative structures. A linear short story is written in chronological order with little or no variation. Most linear short stories do not include flashbacks or dream sequences, but relate the story as it is happening. Focus remains in the present, rather than the past or the future. Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is an example of a linear story. The short story opens with Madame Loisel’s desire for fame and wealth, and in sequential order, de Maupassant reveals the character's flawed attempt to achieve status followed by the sad consequences of her misdirected desires. The short story concludes with a dramatic and ironic revelation and quick resolution, which is a common technique for linear short stories.

Flashbacks and Stream of Consciousness

Short stories written in nonlinear narrative structures are not concerned with chronological sequencing of events. This technique often portrays stories of one’s youth, such as personal growth or innocence lost, using flashbacks and time-altering devices. For example, W.D. Wetherell’s “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” opens, “There was a summer in my life when the only creature that seemed lovelier to me than a largemouth bass was Sheila Mant. I was fourteen.” The past tense and reference to the narrator’s young age indicate the story is a flashback. Stream of consciousness narrative structure -- in which an author pays no heed to time, outside stimuli or traditional conventions -- is also nonlinear. James Joyce, Virginia Woolfe and William Faulkner often used this technique.

Parallel and Frame Structures

Parallel and frame stories use narrative structures that rely heavily on the role of the narrators to convey layers of meaning. Parallel structure refers to two distinctly different, yet closely related storylines that occur simultaneously. For example, in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Telemachus searches for his long lost father, as Odysseus journeys home to be reunited with his son. Similarly, frame stories -- also called frame and embedded narratives -- consists of many smaller stories within the context, or frame, of a larger story. Each of the narratives within the frame can usually stand individually, but has more meaning when analyzed alongside the larger story. For example, Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” as a whole follows a group of pilgrims, with individual pilgrims’ tales told along the way.

Circular Stories

A circular narrative will conclude where it began. Rather than pulling together the remaining remnants of the narrative with a neat conclusion, a circular narrative brings closure through a return to the theme and material introduced at the beginning. Writers achieve this with literal repetition of phrases or syntax from the start or returning the narrator to a setting of importance. Sometimes authors return more generally to an important idea or theme that was introduced early in the story. James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is an example of a circular narrative, as the short story concludes with Mitty escaping his mundane life in another fantasy, just as the story opened.

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