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How to Plan a Short Story: Free Story Planner Template

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Short stories have a lot of work to do. They have to convey vivid details about setting and characters while advancing a cohesive plot in a limited amount of space. Using a story planner template is an effective way to ensure a positive short story writing experience for both new writers and established ones alike. 

story planner template - text overlay with two pictures of a girl writing

The Benefits of a Story Planner Template

As a child, I was obsessed with writing. I carried notebooks everywhere I went and wrote short stories (and long ones!) in them whenever I could. 

The only problem was that my stories never really went anywhere. I mean, physically, they did. I traveled up and down the Pacific Northwest coast with my dad and my stories made some epic journeys.

But the plots always got stuck. I was really good at getting my characters into bad situations, but not so good at bringing them back out again.

Most of my stories just faded out somewhere in the middle. If they had an end, it was usually something like, “Suddenly, I woke up and realized it was all a dream.” Blech. It got to the point where I stopped writing for several years because I was afraid to tackle endings. 

That’s why, when my kids developed a passion for writing short stories, I worked on strategies to help them plan out their stories from the beginning. For every short story assignment or passion project they do, we sit down together and use a story planner template to develop a backbone for their work. 

The result is amazing: they are now adept at generating ideas, developing well-rounded characters, describing the setting, and planning out a plot with lots of twists and a satisfying resolution. I have to tell you, it’s quite hilarious when your child starts pointing out the emotional wounds of fictional characters and the universal life lessons that will help them overcome those wounds.

I write all my own stories this way too, from flash fiction to novels. I always need to know where they’re going. But whether you’re a go-with-the-flow kind of writer or a die-hard planner, there are things you need to know about your story before you start writing if you want to keep moving in the right direction.

In this post, we’ll look at how using a story planner template can lead to better short stories, and I’ll give you a free download you can use on your own or with students you teach. 

Why Writers Need a Story Planner

A story planner is an essential tool for helping writers organize their thoughts and ideas, create an outline for their story so they can avoid problems later on, and develop a visual roadmap for the writing journey that lays ahead of them.

It Helps Organize Thoughts and Ideas

When a new story idea strikes, a lot of information can come with it. This can be overwhelming if you don’t have a way to organize your racing thoughts. 

Conversely, a creative writing assignment might inspire no ideas whatsoever. You might stare at a blank page for an hour trying to come up with a single good idea.

Either way, a story plan helps establish a strong foundation for a good plot. For those with too many ideas, the story planner will help them narrow their ideas down and sort them into different buckets. It will also ensure they don’t lose any of their valuable story ideas. 

character development worksheet

For those who are struggling, the probing questions found in a story planner can effectively elicit new thoughts.

Not every story starts with the same elements. Sometimes, a short story might be born of a “What if’ question. For example, “What if you found a secret passage in your house that led to a different period in time?” These stories start with a premise and expand from there. 

Another story might start with a character idea. For example, my daughter wrote a story about a girl who was raised as a dragon slayer only to find out she was actually a dragon halfling. An interesting character provides many opportunities to craft a strong short story premise. 

Because the short story planner is flexible in its use, writers of all ages can start wherever they feel comfortable. You may have an idea for a character, or you may have a really neat setting in mind. Either way, story planners are useful tools for bringing these creative ideas together. 

Creating an Outline Helps Avoid Problems Later On

Even the most experienced writers can get bogged down in the details of their stories. It can be hard to keep track of information that you wrote or planned out several pages or chapters ago. 

Also, sometimes when you write by the seat of your pants without a plan, you can write yourself into a corner from which you can’t retreat. When that happens, you may have to rewrite large sections of the story or even start over from scratch. 

A basic planner helps you avoid this problem because you work out the major problems in advance.

For example, I was recently writing a story in which the main character’s husband needed to go away for a long time. It wasn’t so much that he needed to go away, but that I needed the main character to be left on her own. 

My initial plan was to send him off to take care of a sick relative but I couldn’t make it completely believable that his wife wouldn’t have gone with him. As I wrote this version of events in my planner, I came to see that I needed a different excuse to send him away, one that would prohibit his wife from joining him. I was able to come up with a plausible alternative before I ever put pen to paper. 

Figuring this out in the planning stage saved me from spending hours writing scenes that just wouldn’t have worked in a final draft, and helped put me on a better path from page one.

It Provides a Visual Roadmap of the Story

Writing a story is a journey in the truest sense of the word, and like every journey, it really helps to have a map. Knowing where you’re going and the path you’re planning to take to get there frees you up from having to figure out such things on the fly and allows your creative brain to just run wild with wonderful writing ideas

You want to equip kids to avoid the nitty-gritty work of trying to map out the story as they go. Once they have more experience as writers, they might be able to do this more readily but at the beginning, you really want to help them come up with a plan so that they don’t get stuck and frustrated. 

What Short Story Elements Should Your Story Planner Cover?

A story planner should cover all the important details a writer needs to consider when planning out their story. The amount of detail included will vary depending on a number of factors—how much of a plotter the writer is, how long and/or complex the story is, and how detailed the narrative needs to be.

In general, these are some of the elements a good story planner might cover.

Plot Development in a Story Planner

At a minimum, the story planner template should have an overview of the main plot points: What is going to happen in the story? This would include things like:

  • The exposition (or opening image). How will we show what the character’s life is like at the beginning of the story?
  • Catalyst (or inciting incident). What major event happens to the protagonist that sets things in motion? 
  • Rising action. How will we show the way tension and suspense build after the catalyst happens?
  • Climax. What will the height of the action be? How will the protagonist solve the problem?
  • Falling action. How will all the conflict that has arisen over the course of the story get resolved?
  • Resolution (or closing image). What does the protagonist’s life look like after the events of the story take place? How has he or she grown as a person?

Not every short story will have all these elements in the same way that a novel would. For example, many short stories don’t start with exposition but with the catalyst. Likewise, resolutions are often much less, well, resolute in short stories than they are in novels. Nonetheless, even if a short story is going to truncate the plot outline, it’s still important to think about where is the best place to start and finish and what’s going to happen in between.

plot development worksheet

Character Development in the Story Planner

The next thing a story planner should look at is character development, which, in many cases, will be the heart of the story. As you plan your own story, you might create character profiles or character sketches by thinking about questions such as:

  • Who is this story about?
  • What kind of person are they? Is the protagonist a girl? a boy? a man or woman? a rabbit or a horse? an alien? 
  • How old are they?
  • What kind of job do they have or are they in school?
  • What do they look like and how do they dress? 
  • What are their personality traits?

But more importantly, of course, are the things going on inside of them.

  • What do they want?
  • What do they need? 
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What are their secrets?
  • Who are their friends?
  • Who are their enemies? 

And of course, we want to know what is standing in the way of them getting what they want, and the story planner template will help develop all of these aspects of the character.

A helpful writing process used by many successful writers is to map out character arcs showing who the character is at the beginning of the story and how they evolve or change as the story progresses.

Setting in the Story Planner

Another thing to consider before writing is the setting of the story. Where does it take place? On a farm? City? Another planet? The bottom of the sea? 

When does it take place? Does it take place in current times? Sometime in the past? Does it take place in the future or in a parallel universe? All of these details are going to have a huge impact on what the story looks like. 

Think about the details of those settings. What specific locales are going to come up in the story and how will you describe them? What do they look like? What do they sound like? What do they smell like?

The time period will also affect the setting. If it takes place in the past, how did they dress? How did they act? What kinds of laws or rules were they subjected to that differ from what we experience today? 

Again, many of these details apply more to older children or students than they do to emerging writers, but it’s never too early to start discussing the basics of story elements. 

How to Use a Story Planner

When you use a story planner template, such as the one at the bottom of this post, you decide how much detail you want to include for each of your writing projects.

In Your Own Projects

Maybe you want to go through all of it, or you may use specific pages or steps in the process. Consider your focus: what are you trying to get out of this assignment? Which elements of the story planner will best support you in that goal?

As a Teacher

If you’re teaching the elements of story to your students, you can also use the story planner as a companion tool. So, for example, you might create a long-term writing project wherein the students complete each page of the story planner after you’ve taught a specific topic. 

While younger students—those in grades 3 to 5, say—will likely need a lot of support as they work through a story planner, middle school and high school students who have received instruction on the story elements will need less. You may want to go through the story planner once together as an example and then let them give it a go on their own and see what they come up with. 

However you decide to use it, on your own or in the classroom, a story planner template will bring together all the pieces of the story so you can focus on unleashing creativity and developing the best stories possible.  

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