ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Letters to Learn By-Plotting the Short Story

Updated on September 28, 2013
Dr. Hilary Johnson, tutor and Author Advisor par excellence
Dr. Hilary Johnson, tutor and Author Advisor par excellence
A Correspondence Course in the Short Story
A Correspondence Course in the Short Story | Source

Lesson 1 - Plotting the Short Story

Lesson 1 was about how to get ideas for plots. It showed various ways in which one could create a plot, such as inverting the facts of a known story like ‘The Necklace’ by Maupassant. Instead of the jewels turning out to be fake, they could be real but believed to be fake. One could also invert the age or sex of the chief character.

Paintings, photographs, legends, news headlines, the Bible, even gossip could be inspiring.

The Exercises for Lesson 1 of the course asked for a “personal statement” from me – hobbies, pet aversions, preferences in reading, employment, education, etc. (a page I have lost) and a brief outline within 300 words of the plot of a story selected from a magazine.

I chose O Henry’s ‘The Last Leaf’.

Plot Outline

In March 1989 ‘Readers Digest’ carried O Henry’s great story ‘The Last Leaf’. ( I don’t like the fiction in other Indian magazines. They’re always about marital problems and always end on a depressing note. Even realism can be interesting if written well, but I don’t think highly about the standard of writing either.

The Last leaf

Two artists, Johnsy and Sue who are good friends, share a studio. Come winter and Johnsy falls seriously ill with pneumonia which has been raging through the city. The fever makes hr morbid and she does not want to recover. She spends her time watching the leaves fall from the ivy vine outside her window. She believes she will die when the last leaf falls.

Meanwhile, Sue speaks to Behrman who is very protective towards them about Johnsy’s strange belief. Secretly, the old man, who is a failure as an artist, goes out into the freezing wet night and paints a leaf on the vine. He catches pneumonia and dies, but he has painted his masterpiece. Johnsy believes the leaf is real and since it refuses to fall, she decides to recover.

Appeal of the Short Story - 'The Last Leaf'

The appeal of the story lies in the power of human relationships. Behrman’s only great painting saves Johnsy’s life. He risks his life to save her. The story is very moving.

Hilary’s Assesment:

February 16, 1990

Dear Miss Saran

Short Story Course Lesson 1

Thank you for sending your first set of exercises. I am very pleased to welcome you to the course.

Your answer for Exercise 1 is most interesting, concisely written and gives a good picture of yourself. One of the most frequently repeated pieces of advice offered to writers is, ‘Write about what you know,’ and this applies to the writer of fiction just as much as to the writer of factual articles. It is from within your own background of knowledge and experience, both practical and emotional, that you will find your readiest source of themes and from which you will write with the greatest confidence and authority. Moreover, the imagination is usually able to work more freely from this secure basis.

Some of what I am now going to say you will know already or it may not especially apply to your particular aims, but I will just outline the main short story markets in the U.K. In any event, I feel that you must ultimately direct your work either towards the U.K. or the U.S.A., although you have done well to find some outlets in India.

As you know, the main outlet for short stories in this country today is represented by the women’s magazine market. At one time this tended to mean that the writer was largely restricted to stories built upon formula plots and featuring stereotyped characters. Now, when there are magazines designed to appeal to women of all ages, interests and educational and social backgrounds, the range of their fiction is suitably diverse.

Stories are to be found dealing with every imaginable type of human conflict situation and all types of characters. If there is a common factor it is that stories usually have as their focus a relationship, not necessarily a romantic one, although naturally these remain popular. There is also a trend at the upper end of the market towards the publication of the literary type of story, the market for which was recently confined to a handful of literary magazines. ‘Bella’ and ‘Best’ are interesting in that they show a slight departure from the type of fiction normally associated with women’s magazines. Both want stories with twit endings and ‘Bella’ features a weekly mini-mystery.

These apart, other possibilities include general interest magazines, some men’s magazines, the teenage market, science fiction and fantasy publications and, of course, radio. In addition, there is a good range of privately produced periodicals, many of which print short stories, although these are seldom able to offer much in the way of financial reward. Competitions offer other opportunities, too.

While it is good to have this degree of choice, it does mean that careful attention must be paid to market study, first in identifying those magazines which are most in tune with your own particular tastes and style and then in determining what each individual fiction editor appears to want.

Of course, what you need to be doing is extending your knowledge of the science fiction/fantasy market. I’m looking for the address of the Isaac Asimov magazine for you and will send it to you the next time. The meantime, you might care to investigate the British Science Fiction Writers Association which publishes three magazines, one for writers, and has as members authors, publishers, booksellers and readers of science fiction, fantasy and allied genres. Although you would be a long –distance member, it is enormously useful belonging to organisations such as these. I am very much involved with the Romantic Novelists Association and there is so much information passed around amongst members and via their newsletter.

You have analysed the published story thoroughly and perceptively and your reasons for its appeal are thoughtfully considered. Apply this kind of analysis to any of the stories you come across in magazines and you will soon form a clear idea of what is required. Of course, O. Henry was a master and ‘Reader’s Digest’ an impossible target, but together they have served the purpose of the exercise well enough!

I wouldn’t imagine for a minute that you would have any problem with plot-finding! That’s a question for beginners and certainly not for writers of fantasy. But I am interested to see how your ideas are sparked.

This is an excellent start and we can now get on to the real business of the Course. I look forward to Lesson 2 soon.

Yours sincerely,

Hilary Johnson, M.A., Ph.D.


Interesting? You might want to read part 1 and part 3 of this series.

Writing Courses

Would you take a course in fiction writing?

See results

Writing Short Stories by George Wier


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Anita Saran profile imageAUTHOR

      Anita Saran 

      5 years ago from Bangalore, India

      ContentStar - I'm mortal too, believe me.

    • Anita Saran profile imageAUTHOR

      Anita Saran 

      5 years ago from Bangalore, India

      Thank you LongTimeMother.

    • LongTimeMother profile image


      5 years ago from Australia

      This series will be extremely helpful to anyone wishing to learn more about writing short stories ... and here on hp I'm thinking that includes just about everyone!

      Voted up and sharing. :)


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)