The super-cool magic short-story formula

A while ago, I did an interview with Mur Lafferty, editor of Escape Pod. In the interview I said that I’ve used a magic formula for many of my stories, and it works amazingly well. I promised to post the formula, and then totally forgot. Well, here it is, in the form of a writing exercise.

Write a 2400-3600 word story with the following constraints:
–Your protagonist has a problem that needs fixing, with serious consequences if left unfixed. They need to do something about it.
–Three characters. Your protagonist (A), your antagonist (B), and your catalyst (C). (A catalyst is a character that changes or alters the problem in some way.)
–Three scenes, each one consisting of 800-1200 words. Scene 1 presents the problem. Scene 2 makes the problem worse and/or raises the stakes. Scene 3 resolves the problem. All three scenes should contain the protagonist plus one other character, either B or C.

The formula comes out of Three-Act Structure, although I was doing this before I knew what Three-Act Structure was. Sometimes you can repeat the “making things worse” part of the formula so that you have a longer story. You can go from a problem in scene 1 to escalation in scene 2, and then escalate again for a third scene, before resolving things in the final scene.

You can also make each scene/section longer, maybe up to 2,000 words each–but be careful to keep them balanced and don’t let them sag. Generally I think newer writers do better with keeping their stories shorter and more focused; the challenge is good for learning economy. Lastly, you can vary the formula by adding very-short intros, transitions, and that sort of thing–which helps the stories be non-formulaic.

A surprising number of my stories are built on this structure. Some basic examples:

Prashkina’s Fire (the bandits function as character B)
Fulgurite (the unicorn functions as character B)

A longer-scene story, still with three scenes:

She Called Me Baby

To see a four-scene story, try these.

Three-Legged Bird

As always, feel free to ask questions.

6 thoughts on “The super-cool magic short-story formula

  1. That’s great — I just listened to that interview on my bus ride down and was going to ask if you’d ever posted this. Good advice, too. It reminds me a bit of the Hollywood Formula that Lou Anders talked about on Writing Excuses, but with a more active role for the third character. More like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly than Casablanca, maybe?


  2. Hi there!

    I hope it’s not rude to resurrect an old post – I’ve been using this exercise lately and I love it!

    I am having some trouble, however, figuring out catalyst characters.

    Can you shed some light on how to create and use them?

    Thanks so much for posting this, and for any answer you can offer.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.