Every story is about someone who wants something and whether they get it or not. Any story plot can easily be broken down into three parts: Objective; Obstacles; Outcome, sometimes referred to as the Triple-O Outline. There are hardly any new plots, so don’t be discouraged if “it’s been done.” The challenge for any writer is to make the characters so fresh and interesting that the reader forgets they have seen the plot before.
Plots for short stories should be short. If too much action is incorporated, the story will grow longer and longer and may become unwieldy. If too many obstacles occur, the reader could grow impatient and give up.
Be careful not to confuse “back story” (information needed to explain the characters personality and problems to the readers), with current plot action. Whatever has happened before the real action begins is “back story”. Be careful not to confuse explanatory action, with a plot turning point. A plot turning point is always when something CHANGES.
To use a classic example, in the story Cinderella her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage are all “back story”. The mean way the rest of the family treats Cindy is explanatory action used to set up the objective. Because the Objective for Cinderella, is that she wants to go to the ball. Until Cinderella decides she wants to go to the ball nothing has really happened, everything is going on as usual. Remember, plot always happens when something changes. When the character knows what he or she wants, that is the objective and the objective is always the beginning of the story, the beginning of the plot. Now the character has a problem to solve – how to get what s/he wants. Once there is a problem statement, it’s time to get on with the story.
If there is no problem, nothing is happening, and there is no story. Stories are about overcoming something. If there is no “overcoming” then there is no satisfaction to the reader at the end.
Here are The Triple-Os
Objective: The objective (some call it object, but I like objective better) is what the character wants. Once your character knows what s/he wants, s/he has an objective. Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Her sisters are going and she darned well wants to go, too.
Obstacles: Whatever stands in the character’s way of getting what s/he wants are plot obstacles. There's an old writer's axiom called the "rule of three" that tells us not to include more than three things in any one sentence. For hundreds of years three has been a magic number in our culture. Genies grant three wishes, Cinderella had two ugly sisters, there are usually three turning points or complications in a story plot, with the last one resulting in the crisis/bleak moment (some people call it the “black moment” and Carla Neggers calls it the “big gloom”), just before the resolution. So it is unwise to plan more than three obstacles in any plot.
Cinderella wants to go to the ball, but: She has nothing to wear. She has no way to get there. She must leave by midnight. And sure enough, that last leads to the bleak momen of her leaving the prince. The resolution is, of course, that he searches for her.